What is pornography?
Pornography is written material, audio, photographs, or videos that contain explicit descriptions or displays of sexual body parts or sexual activities. It is designed to create sexual enjoyment for the person who reads, sees, or hears it.
It is important to note that not all pornography is linked to harmful outcomes.
But online pornographic videos that are freely available often do not promote consent or respect. Research suggests that 35% of scenes in popular pornography portray non-consensual behaviour.
When comprehensive sexuality and relationships education is absent, pornography can become a major source of sex education for young people and can lead to them trying to perform sexual behaviour they have seen online. Adolescents who watch violent pornography can be up to 6 times more likely to be sexually aggressive compared to those who viewed non-violent pornography or no pornography.
How common is it for young people to view pornography?
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), nearly half of all Australian children aged 9 to 16 years experience regular exposure to pornographic images online.
This figure is supported by Our Watch, a violence prevention organisation, whose 2020 research revealed that 48% of boys have seen pornography by the age of 13 and 48% of girls have seen pornography by the age of 15.
What is the impact of pornography on young people?
There are several reasons why accessing pornography can be potentially harmful for young people. A child or young person who regularly accesses pornography may be affected by some, none, or all of these.
Negative mental health impacts include:
- body image issues
- low self-esteem
- anxiety and depression
- pressure to engage in sexual acts
- loneliness and social isolation
- a lack of empathy
- a preoccupation with sex and sexual relationships
Impacts on relationships can include:
- unhealthy expectations
- intimacy with real people may not seem satisfying
- a decrease in respect between partners
- sexual uncertainty and feeling unclear about what is expected in sexual acts
- focus on physical appearance rather than intimate connection
Impacts on behaviour can include:
- increase in aggression
- increase in risk of sexual violence
- decrease in love, affection, intimacy and respect
- feeling forced to act in a particular sexual way
- potential for watching more extreme material
- risk of it becoming compulsive and interfering with daily life
There are also several common myths that are perpetuated by a lot of pornographic materials, many of which are harmful. These include:
- men want sex all the time
- women enjoy aggression towards them
- male sexual pleasure is more important than female sexual pleasure
- men have to be in charge and women have to be passive
- safe sex is not important
- active consent is not important
- more extreme sexual acts including rough sex, anal sex, strangulation and group sex are common
How can I help protect my child from the potential negative impacts of pornography?
While research suggests that there may be some positive outcomes for adults who access pornography, it is important to understand the vast differences between real, safe intimate sexual behaviour and sexual activity portrayed in pornography. Children and young people still have developing brains and typically do not have the experience or ability to make this important distinction.
As a parent or carer, there are some things you can do to help reduce the risk of your child being negatively impacted by pornography:
- stay engaged, build trust and talk regularly with your child about what they are doing online
- have age-appropriate conversations with your children about sexual content
- set some house rules and establish what is and isn’t okay to share and access on devices
- with younger children, use available safe technology like parental controls and setting curfews on device use
- make sure your children cannot accidentally find inappropriate content on your device
What do I do if I find out my child has been accessing pornography?
Although masturbation is a healthy, normal behaviour as part of a young person’s sexual development, it can be confronting to find out that a child or adolescent has been accessing pornography.
It is entirely normal to feel a wide range of feelings, including disbelief, shame, anger, disgust, disappointment, confusion and fear. You do not need to deal with these feelings alone. Support is available for you and your family.
If you discover that your child has been accessing pornography, or they disclose this to you, it’s important to stay calm and try not to shame them or make them feel guilty. Instead you can:
- reassure them you still love them
- ask what they have seen and how it made them feel
- try to listen to what they tell you without judgement
- calmly explain any concerns you have
- provide easy-to-understand information about the potential negative impacts
- decide whether you need to remove or limit access to devices and explain clearly to your child why this needs to happen
- seek professional support, if needed
Helping your child stay safe
If you are supporting a young person who is accessing pornography, you can help them stay safe by having open, honest conversations about some of the following topics:
- no one should feel pressured to access pornography
- remember that most pornography has been staged and doesn’t accurately represent what real life sex is like
- it is healthy to limit the amount of pornography you watch
- it is illegal to send, receive or share pornography involving people under the age of 18
- it is illegal to share photos or videos of adult bodies or sexual activities without their consent
- how to get help (e.g. tell a trusted adult) if anything makes a child or young person feel uncomfortable, threatened or pressured
- consider safer forms of pornography such as magazines and books rather than photos or videos
Where to get more information?
The Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner (www.esafety.gov.au) has a guide on how to have hard conversations including conversations about pornography with young people. They also have a section of their website that deals specifically with online pornography.
The Australian Institute for Family Studies (www.aifs.gov.au) has published a report on the effects of pornography on children and young people.
It’s Time we Talked (www.itstimewetalked.com) is a violence prevention initiative that supports young people, parents, schools, government and the community to understand and address the influence of pornography.
Porn is Not the Norm (www.notthenorm.com.au) has a suite of online resources developed and delivered by autism expert Dr Wenn Lawson and pornography expert Maree Crabbe. The resources are designed to support parents and carers of autistic young people and the teachers and other professionals who work with them to understand the interactions between autism, sexuality, technology and pornography, and how we can support autistic young people to navigate respectful, consenting and safe sexuality and relationships.
Our Watch (www.ourwatch.org.au) published a report in 2020 on pornography, young people and preventing violence against women.