The types of harm to children and young people caused by them accessing online pornography have been extensively researched, initially documented by eChildhood in 2017. This 2020 update builds upon the 2017 eChildhood Statement of Research and includes further framing, recent statistics, new evidence, and additional insight into the ways that pornography is harming children and young people. This Research Update is an Appendix to the 2020 eChildhood Report: A PUBLIC HEALTH RESPONSE for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people.
Rates of exposure and consumption
Trends in children and young people accessing online pornography show an increase.
An estimated one in three of all internet users in the world today are below the age of 18. In Australia, and around the world, children are increasingly accessing or accidentally exposed to pornography on the internet. While exact statistics vary due to the inherent research limitations on this topic, studies show that high percentages of children and young persons above age ten are exposed to pornographic material, with young males more likely than females to deliberately seek out pornography and to do so frequently. Access to pornography at a young age—throughout critical developmental years—may have extensive negative impacts on the child.
- 2017 Australian research of 15-29-year-olds reflecting on first exposure indicated that 69% of boys and 23% of girls had seen pornography by age 13 or younger.
- These figures are consistent with a 2019 study from Ireland, which found that upon reflection of childhood experiences, 65.5% of boys and 30% of girls have seen pornography by age 13 or younger.
- Extrapolating population data and based on the 2017 research, approximately 1.66 million boys and half a million girls in Australia (13 and under) are exposed to pornography. Most will see violent depictions of sex before they’ve had their first kiss.
The above rates of exposure are those of adolescents and young adults recounting their first memories. It is reasonable to assume that the average first age of exposure may have possibly dropped and rates of exposure may have increased in recent years. For instance:
- According to 2019 Australian data from an internet filtering software company used in schools, one-third of students aged eight and under attempted to access online pornography in the past six months. This includes accidental access through unwanted pop-up ads and banners as well as deliberate searches for explicit material.
- 2019 UK research found that some children as young as 7 or 8 years old had viewed pornography. Most of these children stumbled across pornography unintentionally at first, and it was often these children who felt they had been most negatively affected by pornography. Children described feeling “grossed out” and “confused” when they first saw pornography, particularly those who had seen it when they were under the age of 10.
In a 2020 UK survey, the researchers note that rough or violent sex, imitation of incest or rape, bondage, and ‘gangbangs’ was a point of concern for young children, some of whom indicated the potential “trauma” of such content.
As young people develop, pornography consumption becomes both common and frequent. The aforementioned Australian study of 15-29-year-olds, found that pornography use is associated with some health and behavioural outcomes (the authors note that longitudinal research is required). Their findings indicate that 100% of young men and 82% of young women had ever viewed pornography, with 84% of young men and 19% of young women reporting that they watch pornography on a daily or weekly basis.
Comparatively, a 2017 Swedish study of 18-year-olds reported that nearly all respondents (98%) had watched pornography, although to different extents. 11% were found to be frequent users (watched pornography one or more times per day), 69% average users (at least once a month up to several times a week, but less than once per day), and 20% infrequent users (less than once a month).
The literature reveals links between children and young people’s access to pornography and the following non-exhaustive list of potential negative impacts:
- Shaping sexual attitudes and behaviours – such as earlier sexual experimentation, casual sexual behaviour and more ‘risky’ sexual behaviour;
- Poor mental health – including, but not limited to, being distressed and upset by the images, self-objectification and body image concerns, sexual conditioning, and developing compulsive sexual behaviour disorders;
- Sexism and objectification – such as reinforcing gender roles that women are ‘sex objects’, and men should be dominant while women should be submissive;
- Sexual aggression and violence – consistently, there is a demonstrated association between regular viewing of online pornography and the perpetration of sexual harassment, sexual coercion and sexual abuse by boys;
- Child-on-child sexual abuse – an under-researched area, professionals are noting an increase of this behaviour, influenced by children’s access to pornography.
These five areas of harm are expanded upon below.
Shaping sexual attitudes and behaviours
The current online environment provides unlimited opportunity for children and young people to be influenced by pornographic content that is most often violent and extreme—as such, this has the potential to condition children and young people's attitudes and sexual behaviours. To understand why, it is essential to ask questions about the content of pornography viewed, how they may be interpreting this content, regularity of viewing, and how this content may be influencing brain development.
Sexual media’s influence is moderated by several mechanisms. Leonhardt and colleagues (2019) propose that the "scripts" or stories told in pornography are more likely to be applied when they are:
- exclusive (predominate message in the absence of alternative messages)
- formative (early exposure or first source of information)
- resonant (consistent with real-life experiences)
- reinforced (positive reinforcement from watching or enacting the script. E.g., through masturbation to pornography)
To counter sexual media scripts, these researchers suggest that children and young people need conversations and education that is early, persistent and that reinforces positive qualities of relationships. However, this opportunity is rarely afforded—very often, pornography is the number one source of sexual information school-aged students have access to.
In a study performed by Rothman and Adhia (2016), adolescents 16-17 years old were asked to complete a survey of their pornography viewership. Researchers found 56% of respondents reported trying a sexual act because they saw it in pornography, 54% reported viewing pornography specifically to learn how to do something sexual, and 44% had been asked to do something sexual which a partner had seen in pornography.
2016 research found that exposure to sexually explicit Internet material directly predicts adolescents’ willingness to engage in casual sex. A review of the research also identified that it is connected to higher levels of permissive sexual attitudes, sexual preoccupation and earlier sexual experimentation, including younger ages for first oral sex and sexual intercourse. Amongst college students, research has also demonstrated that higher frequency porn viewing correlates with an increased number of sexual partners and a higher incidence of hooking up.
The ways in which pornography is influencing young people’s sexual experiences is reflected in research by Marston and Lewis (2014). Their qualitative, longitudinal study of 130 men and women aged 16-18 from diverse social backgrounds in the UK, found a normalisation of painful, risky, coercive heterosexual anal sex. Interviewees frequently cited pornography as the explanation for anal sex, a practice they expected to be painful for young women but pleasurable for young men. Participants described an expectation that young men would persuade or coerce a reluctant female partner.
In addition to these studies, another meta-analysis asked the question: “Is sexual content in new media linked to sexual risk behaviour in young people?”. Exposure to sexually explicit websites was correlated with condomless sexual intercourse; and sexting was correlated with ever having had sexual intercourse, recent sexual activity, alcohol and other drug use before sexual intercourse, and multiple sexual partners. The authors stated:
“Cross-sectional studies show a strong association between self-reported exposure to sexual content in new media and sexual behaviours in young people.”
Further attitude and behavioural outcomes are explored below.
Poor mental health
In addition to the ways that stories in pornography may condition relationships and behaviours (outlined above), pornography scripts may condition the brain, impact mental health, and lead to compulsive sexual behaviours.
Blakemore, an expert on adolescent brain development, has the opinion that the teenage years should be considered a sensitive period due to the dramatic brain reorganisation taking place. In addition, authors of a 2012 research review on the impact of internet pornography on adolescents, state that adolescents may be disproportionately vulnerable to negative consequences when exposed to sexually explicit material.
Young people themselves notice troubling impacts. In 2016, a study of 1565 18-19-year-old Italian students, 4 out of 5 stated they consumed pornography. Almost 22% reported that it became habitual, 10% stated that it reduced their sexual interest towards potential real-life partners, and 9.1% reported a kind of addiction. In addition, 19% of overall pornography consumers report an abnormal sexual response, while the percentage rose to 25.1% among regular consumers.
The adolescent brain is highly impressionable and vulnerable to forming addictions, and according to de Alarcon and colleagues (2019), problematic online pornography use might also have adverse effects in sexual development and sexual functioning, especially among the young population. Consumers may develop enhanced preference for novel sexual practices in response to sexual cues, whereby more frequent and/or higher intensity pleasure-seeking activities (i.e. increased frequency of masturbation and/or increased valence of pornography viewed) would need to be performed to achieve the same effect—this is often referred to as sexual tolerance. Another “change process” that can emerge is sexual conditioning, whereby sexual tastes alter or are created as a result of consuming particular genres of porn. Consumers’ arousal pathways can be conditioned to acts that previously, they had no interest in. Conditioning to screen-based arousal, can at times, result in sluggish or absent sexual response during partnered sex.
Information relating to sexual conditioning and addictive behaviours needs to be understood in light of the World Health Organization adopting “Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder” as an official diagnosis in April 2019. In other words, the world’s health experts have determined that compulsive pornography use is diagnosable as a disorder. A category within impulse control disorders—defining parameters include a pattern of failure to control intense, sexual impulses or urges; resulting repetitive sexual behaviour is manifested over an extended period and causes marked distress or significant impairment to life. Popular media tends to use the term "Sex Addiction" or "Porn Addiction" whereas "Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder" is the official term used by the ICD-11. That said, some clinicians and researchers also use the former terms. For a comprehensive overview of evidence related to structural brain changes, refer to Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don’t—A Systematic Review.
Whilst the literature varies in its ability to show if pornography directly causes mental health issues or instead, conditions are correlational (existed prior to viewing), or a combination of both, studies indicate that porn users experience:
- higher incidence of depressive symptoms
- lower degrees of social integration
- decreased emotional bonding with caregivers
- increases in conduct problems
- higher levels of delinquent behaviour
Research suggests links between mental health issues and problematic porn use, such as low self-esteem and depressive traits, and impacts on academic performance. Studies also indicate that pornography impacts self-image; for girls, this relates to feelings of physical inferiority, and for boys, fear of not measuring up, with both virility and performance.
In addition, adult cohort studies have identified that pornography use and associated sexual arousal patterns may interfere with decision making, is linked to diminishing working-memory, and can decrease a consumer’s ability to delay gratification. Adult users of pornographic material also report greater depressive symptoms, poorer quality of life, more mental‐ and physical‐health diminished days, and lower health status than compared to nonusers.
A 2020 Israeli study involving 2112 14-18-year-olds found that adolescents who consumed pornography (i.e., solo online activity) are mostly boys, introvert, neurotic, less agreeable, and with less conscientious judgement. In addition, they are more overt narcissists, use more suppression and less reappraisal to regulate emotions, and are low on social intimacy. The researchers did not explore if those traits were existing or influenced by consumption; as such, there exists an opportunity to investigate if these traits reverse when young people stop consuming pornography.
Sexism and objectification
Studies show that sexual arousal to online pornography by adolescents leads to sexist attitudes and notions that women are sex objects. These findings are consistent with a review of 20 years of research that found pornography use was associated with more permissive sexual attitudes and tended to be linked with stronger gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs.
As previously outlined, in the absence of alternative messages, online pornography provides a script for young consumers and has been found to influence online and offline behaviours. The relationship between pornography, sexual coercion, abuse and sexting was explored in a large European study of 4,564 young people aged 14-17. The authors of this study argued that pornography is both underpinned by, and perpetuates, gender inequality and that boys who regularly watched online pornography were significantly more likely to hold negative gender attitudes.
Young people themselves, are troubled by how much pornography influences their lives. In 2014, 500 18-year-olds were surveyed and two-thirds of men (66%) and more than three-quarters of women (77%) believe that pornography has led to unrealistic attitudes to sex, with 61% of men and 78% of women believing that pornography encourages society to view women as sex objects. Their concerns are consistent with feedback from young people, such as:
- “It gives an unrealistic view of sex and our bodies and makes us self-conscious and question why our bodies are not developed like what we see online.” (Female, 13)
- “It will make people look at women as objects and start to treat them as objects.” (Male, 14)
- "One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos - not major - just a slap here or there." (Male, 13)
- “Porn can objectify women—especially when they show ‘babysitters’ and ‘cheaters’ they are treated like they deserve to be grabbed and treated toughly.” (Female, 17)
- “I think that it teaches boys in particular, that girls are objects. I feel that it also teaches girls that they have to live up to the expectations of the actors on screen.” (Female, 14)
- “I think porn gives boys a skewed view of intimacy, so they expect and act like what they see in porn. Women may also have notions that they have to act like what they see in porn and have bodies like that or have sex like that.” (Male, 17)
For some young consumers, the ways in which pornography shapes sexual attitudes and behaviours, and fosters sexism and objectification, may lead to acting out what they view, as outlined below.
Sexual aggression and violence
A European study on pornography, sexual coercion and abuse and sexting in young people’s intimate relationships found that:
- there is a clear association between regular viewing of online pornography and perpetration of sexual coercion and abuse by boys.
- both regularly watching pornography and sending or receiving sexual images or messages were associated with an increased probability of being a perpetrator of sexual coercion.
- sexual coercion and abuse extended to online behaviours, with the authors noting that sexting (which has become normalised) has the potential to reproduce sexist features of pornography such as control and humiliation.
A 2019 U.S. study investigated the role that violent pornography played in teen dating violence. Mixed-gender 10th grade students (N=1694) were recruited for the study who reported being in a relationship in the past year. Results indicated boys exposed to pornography were 2-3 times more likely and girls 1.5 times more likely to report being perpetrators of sexual teen dating violence than those who were not exposed to violent pornography.
In a 2017 mixed-gender Swedish study of 946 students, frequent users watched hardcore and violent pornography to a higher extent, were more likely to have engaged in a wider range of sexual activities, fantasised about trying sexual activities seen in hardcore pornography, and showed signs of sexual preoccupancy and problematic pornography use.
Exploring the effects of pornography by using a forensic sample, pornography use was determined via questionnaires by incarcerated offenders during adolescence, adulthood, and immediately prior to the offence based on the level of physical injury, as well as the extent of humiliation experienced by the victims. Their findings indicated that adolescent exposure to pornographic material was a significant predictor of the elevation of violence, as it increased the extent of victim humiliation.
Ybarra and Thompson (2018) investigated factors that may predict the emergence of sexual violence among youth. They collected six waves of data over six years from youth aged between 10 and 21 years. After adjusting for potentially influential characteristics, they identified that current exposure to violent pornography was strongly associated with the emergence of sexual violence perpetration, depending on the type of sexual violence (sexual harassment, sexual assault, coercive sex, attempted rape, and rape).
Rather than relying on a single research paper to draw conclusions, a meta-analysis synthesises data from a range of studies and looks for common and consistent findings— a meta-analysis being the “gold star” of research papers. Wright and colleagues carried out a Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies. Their findings stated that:
“the accumulated data leave little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression than individuals who do not consume pornography or who consume pornography less frequently.”
It is worth noting that “perpetrating” and “offenders” are not preferred terms when referring to children and young people affected by pornography. Instead, the problematic sexual behaviours sometimes displayed by such children and young people should primarily be framed within evidence-based harms. That said, researchers often rely on these terms, reflected as such throughout.
Child-on-child sexual abuse
There is an emergence of professionals in the health, welfare, education and legal sectors observing the relationship between children who view pornography and their sexual abuse of other children, with corresponding research slowly following. Figures indicate a significant increase in abuse against and between children. Between 2013 and 2016, police figures in the UK show a rise of child-on-child sexual offences by 71%. Whilst child-on-child sexual abuse can be influenced by a number of factors, including having been a victim of sexual abuse, the role of pornography in harmful sexual behaviours is described as follows:
Dr Joe Tucci, CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation (Feb 2016): Ultimately, what porn is doing to children and therefore relationships—is harming the future generation of adults. It’s rewriting the scripts around intimacy. Are we willing as a community, to pay the price, of taking out of relationships, the very thing that all of us are looking for—which is love, and compassion, and care, and connection—because that’s what porn is doing, and we are seeing that in the programs that we run … Not only have we seen an increase in the number of children, but we’ve seen an increase in the seriousness of the behaviours that they are engaging in. 15 years ago, porn was almost never associated with this behaviour … nowadays, almost all of the kids that we see in the program have been exposed to porn or have access to porn.
U.S. child advocacy group (Jan 2017): We have had cases where the child has said, ‘I learned that from the internet,’ and we’ve had children that are basically describing an addiction to pornography and then they try it out … We had a case recently where the child victim was 3 years old but the [child displaying harmful sexual behaviours] was only 10 or 11 years old.
Heidi Olsen, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (April 2018): We are seeing a rise of juvenile sex offenders, kids under the age of 15, who are committing the assaults, and we are seeing that pornography is playing a huge role in that, which makes sense—kids imitate what they see ... What we have seen from 2016-2017 data [onwards] is that our biggest age range [of those sexually abusing children] are 11-15-year-olds … We don’t have a lot of data on kids who have assaulted younger than 10-years-old, [however looking over our patient records], I have found some stories of 7-year-olds who have assaulted [other children] … We are seeing a rise of [children abusing other children] who have NO risk factors except for exposure to pornography—that alone, is causing them to act out what they are seeing … Pornography is influencing children to sexually act out, assault, and hurt their peers like we’ve never seen … there is a direct correlation between these two things.
Freely available online pornography is shaping the sexual conditioning of increasing numbers of young people. A small-scale Australian study highlighted that 75% of 7-11-year-old boys and 67% of 7-11-year-old girls in treatment for Problem Sexualised Behaviours (PSBs) reported early sexualisation through online pornography.
The ways in which pornography influences child-on-child sexual abuse is described by Australian practitioner, Russell Pratt, who says:
One thing seems clear: pornography provides a “how to” manual, showing every possible angle of what goes where and who can do what to whom, as well as providing sexual stimulation and shaping patterns of sexual arousal. When coupled with other risk factors present in the young person’s life, pairing the “how-to” with the sexual stimulation provided by pornography both equips and primes youth to undertake more advanced sexual practices earlier than they otherwise might or earlier than those who have not accessed pornography, simply because they have just that – a template for what to do, based on the graphic nature of pornography.
The significance of this abuse can result in severe consequences for both victims and those engaging in harmful sexual behaviours. For example, 14-year old Ana Kriegel was murdered by two boys in May 2018. Boy A was recently sentenced to life; Boy B was sentenced to 15 years. Documented in a court of law in Ireland, Mr Justice Paul McDermott said there was nothing in any of the psychiatric reports, nothing in their secure and caring family backgrounds or previous histories to suggest that they might commit these crimes. A comprehensive commentary of the case in The Irish Times states that although it was not mentioned in sentencing, perhaps the only thing that was out of the ordinary was the extent of Boy A’s appetite for extreme and violent pornography. The commentary poses questions that warrant urgent responses: “How does a child of 13 come to accumulate thousands of images of pornography on his devices without anyone noticing? Is pornography now just another unavoidable hurdle to be navigated in adolescence? And if so, what is the impact of exposure to explicit and sometimes violent images on a developing mind? Is an interest in online gore an indication of something darker manifesting in a child’s psyche?”
Peer-reviewed research indicates that primary school educators are struggling to deal with younger and younger children enacting problem sexual behaviours. Children displaying problematic sexual behaviours were observed by 40.8% of educators. Descriptions of such occurrences include children physically acting out sexually with other children, sexually harassing other children, verbally attempting to coerce other children to participate in sexual behaviour, and individual displays of sexual behaviour. Researchers Ey and McInness attested that children viewing pornography are at risk of developmentally unfavourable outcomes, and indicate that it needs to be seen as a child protection issue.
A 2017 small-scale Australian study with young people who have sexually abused, recommended opportunities for prevention such as reforming sexuality education; redressing their victimization experiences; and helping their management of pornography. Despite the growing observation and professional concern about the prevalence of this abuse, there continues to be a limited body of research to inform policy and practice to minimise the inevitable harm this abuse causes.
Robust research identifies that pornography is influencing and negatively impacts a significant number of children and young people, affecting their health, mental health, physical safety, online safety, and wellbeing. eChildhood notes that further research is required—in particular, the exploration of how compulsive consumers’ mental health issues and personality traits respond to quitting pornography; the links between pornography and child-on-child sexual abuse, and online sexual behaviours; data collection from frontline services serving children and young people who have been harmed; and identifying resilience factors required to reject harmful sexual scripts perpetuated in online pornography
Effective intervention measures are required to address individual and broader societal harms, including greater efforts to respond to pornography's role in normalising online and offline violence against women and girls, and measuring the effectiveness of measures implemented. The Australian eChildhood Protection Coalition aims to identify and respond to gaps in the research and report on the outcomes of solutions implemented.
Prepared by eChildhood Deputy Chair, Liz Walker, with assistance from Sajeev Kunaharan.
Cite as: eChildhood 2020 Update: Statement of Research Relating to Pornography Harms to Children. Prepared by Walker, L. & Kunaharan, S. Available from URL: https://www.echildhood.org/statement
Download the Statement of Research with references (coming soon)
Access the 2020 eChildhood Report: A PUBLIC HEALTH RESPONSE for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people (coming soon)
This statement of research is endorsed by child youth advocates, anti-violence workers and key academics, including Dr Gail Dines, Dr Michael Flood, Dr John D. Foubert, Dr Donald Hilton, Dr Caroline Norma, Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, Dr Meagan Tyler, Maree Crabbe, Tom Meagher and others. ACADEMICS, CHILD YOUTH ADVOCATES, ANTI-VIOLENCE WORKERS AND COMMUNITY ORGANISATIONS ARE WELCOME TO ADD COMMENT TO THIS STATEMENT OF RESEARCH AND PROVIDE ENDORSEMENT BELOW. BY ADDING YOUR NAME, YOU ARE AGREEING WITH THIS STATEMENT.