Personal digital devices have had an evolution like none other. Over the past 10-to-15 years they’ve evolved to become portable, readily accessible, interactive, ubiquitous and the social norm. They’re pretty much glued to our hand, when you think about it. Although digital and social media have many benefits, including early learning, exposure to new ideas and knowledge, and increased opportunities for social connection and support, unsolicited, unsupervised and unguided use of the internet can have negative consequences for the physical and mental health of children in their formative years.
For many parents, a child’s easy access online to pornography, adult material and sexual content causes concern and fear.
It’s important that parents and carers understand how exposure to pornography, adult material and sexual content online affects a young person’s brain.
Access to online pornography and sexual content has increased in quantity and ease due to several enabling factors, including increased use and access to the internet, increased processing power of devices, better Wi-Fi, better data roaming and inevitably the increased production and distribution of content on the internet.
Today, online adult content comes in many forms and can be found in various mediums; from videos and images to graphics, cartoons, games, audio, live streams, apps and written material.
What Impact Can Adult Content Have On Young Children?
There are a variety of ways that adult content can impact young children negatively if they are exposed to it. Below are some of the more common:
Early Sexual Intercourse
It has been observed that young people who are exposed to sexual or pornographic content at a very young age are highly likely to engage in sexual activities earlier in age. Porn depicts sexual activity in many different ways (casual, consequence-free, violent, etc) and many are not socially normal or accepted (and potentially not legal). Someone who views this type of content may often seek out what they see, listen or observe.
It has been observed that young people who are exposed to sexual or pornographic content at a very young age are highly likely to develop an intimacy disorder and/or sex addiction. The exposure may cause trauma and impair the young person’s social and interpersonal development.
Early exposure to pornography can damage a child’s moral compass, potentially leading them to act-out sexually against another person, commit an act of rape, molestation, or sexual violence..
Screen time has sky-rocketed in 2020/21, influenced big time by Covid-19 lockdowns and new behaviors. Unfortunately, increase of screen time and time online, means an increase in the possibility and probability of a young person viewing sexually aggressive content.
This exposure may cause a viewer to display varied kinds of sexual aggression against future partners. Pornography and related content will often portray unrealistic images of both genders in a sexually explicit way. Generally, one gender acts as a subordinate to the other gender. Mostly, it’s men who are shown as aggressive and emotionless people, and women are portrayed as weak, naïve, and submissive.
Media, entertainment and other adult content often objectifies women. The way sex education is delivered and discussed can often be alarming. Many times women are portrayed as nothing more than sexual objects, while ads and TV shows often exploit the feminine side of women sexually and emotionally. This objectification runs the risk of normalizing a teen to this behavior.
Early age pornography addiction can lead the viewer to violate the traditional ways of having an intimate relationship. Porn often portrays the man as someone from a higher level in the hierarchy (eg. Business executive, teacher, rich man, etc), and the female as someone from a lower level (eg. secretary, student, wannabe actress.).
Adult content with violence (eg. porn, action movies, explicit imagery) can highly distort the way young children see this world. Some studies suggest that access to violent content at a young age can lead to violent behavior. This could include bullying, assaulting or fighting another child, or acting out against someone in a sexual and physically harmful way later in life.
Infamous 1970s serial serial killer, rapist, and murderer of numerous young women, Theodore Robert (Ted) Bundy, was exposed to pornography at an early age and in his last interview blames said pornographic content for his evil thoughts and actions.
Internet Addiction Disorder
Excessive use of the internet to view adult content can have an impact on a young person’s mind, and it can lead to issues and disorders such as low self-esteem, bad sleeping habits, and suicidal thoughts. Continuous use of the internet to view aggressive or explicit content may alter a child’s mental wiring in a way that they become obsessed with any sexual stimuli that they see and addicted to its access.
Studies suggest that approximately 2.5% of the United States population is suffering an intimacy disorder. Exposure to adult and pornographic content can trigger trauma and may lead to sex addiction and other intimacy problems.
How Can You Help Your Child?
It starts with understanding, awareness and conversation. Talk to your child about adult content and its potential effects on them, others and your family. Discuss the do’s and the don’ts, and talk about realistic and respectful ways to avoid issues and exposure to bad content.
Agree on and set up some rules, regulations and accountabilities around internet use and activity. Discuss why adult content can impact our mental and emotional health, and how these rules will help.
69% of parents believe educating their children about pornography is essential, as their potential exposure is highly likely.
77% see themselves as responsible for providing this education in the home. Yet less than half reported having actually spoken to their children about pornography.
Find out more in eSafety Research, Parenting and pornography, December 2018.
Your child will discover adult content online unintentionally, and they will likely go seeking it out at some point too. Age-appropriate conversations about sexualised content and violence can help young people process what they come across online and reinforce the importance of consent and respectful relationships.
Wondering what else you can do if you know your child has found pornography online?
Here’s some additional advice from eSafety:
Try to approach the situation calmly. If you are upset or angry, your child may feel like they cannot come to you about other concerns in the future.
Thank them for being brave enough to let you know and reassure them that you will sort it out together.
Listen, assess, pause
If your child has accidentally viewed explicit content, ask them to fill you in on the details so you can help manage the situation.
For example, find out how they found it, where it happened, who (if anyone) showed it to them and how they felt when they saw it.
It may be tempting to give a big lecture right there on the spot but sometimes this is not the best option. Take some time to plan your approach to the topic. You will have a better outcome if everyone stays calm.
Reassure your child they are not in trouble
Try to understand rather than criticise or punish.
When children fear punishment, they may close down emotionally. They may be reluctant to talk, and may struggle to listen or understand. This could lead your child to hide their behaviour or not want to approach you in the future.
Try not to remove your child's device or online access completely, as they will see it as punishment.
If they say they have not been watching (or been shown) pornography but you know they have, it is best to tell them what you know rather than getting mad at them for lying. The conversation is likely to be ineffective if you are upset and they are defensive.
Be sensitive to how they feel
It is important to talk with your child about how the content made them feel. This makes the conversation less confronting and allows them to talk more openly about their experience.
Does your child feel good, bad, safe, scared, uncomfortable, curious, repulsed or something else? Any or all of these feelings are normal reactions.
Seek professional help if you are concerned your child is very upset or struggling to process what they have seen.
Encourage your child to talk to you about any questions they have about what they come across online. Let them know they can talk to you at anytime.