Kids’ Exposure to Porn: New Findings

Researchers say kids' exposure to online porn may now be "normative among youth Internet users, especially teenage boys."
By Anne Collier

I just received another email from Jessica, parent of three teens in Michigan, with more than four dozen URLs of X-rated pages in a social-networking site. I haven't looked at them all (I pass them along to the site's customer-service department), but the URLs themselves are highly suggestive of sex-related content – e.g., two of the more mentionable ones here are "gurl-frm-hell" and "DUDEWITHCAM." [More about Jessica's experience in a moment.]

I'm telling you this because it bears out researchers' latest thinking about online porn – that exposure to it may now be a norm of teenage life. But let me quote the researchers exactly, with some important advice they pair with this finding: "Exposure to online porn might have reached the point where it can be characterized as normative among youth Internet users, especially teenage boys. Medical practitioners, educators, other youth workers, and parents should assume that most boys of high school age that use the Internet have some degree of exposure to online pornography, as do girls…. Frank direct conversations with youth that address the possible influences of pornography on sexual behavior, attitudes about sex, and relationships are needed." That's from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC) in their just-released analysis in the journal Pediatrics of a 2005 study. [Here’s TechNewsWorld's coverage of this much-covered analysis.]

The key new issue highlighted by Jessica's effort to expose and stop porn in social sites is that much of it is user-produced. This is the challenge of the youth-driven social Web: not just how to protect young people from porn operators and predators but, in essence, how to protect them from themselves and each other? The cold reality is that teens (and plenty of adults) are porn operators too – the homemade variety. [Here are Jessica's post in the BlogSafety.com forum about her findings.]

Back to the data

It shows that unwanted exposure to porn has been growing. The CACRC reports that 42% of US 10-to-17-year-olds said they'd been exposed to online pornography in the past year, and 66% of that group "reported only unwanted exposure." Thirteen percent went to X-rated sites on purpose, but a much larger number, 34% were exposed to online porn they didn't want to see (up from 25% about five years before this survey), due to things like pop-up ads, spam email, clicking on unintended search results, or misspelling Web addresses the browser window. [The authors did say that not all unwanted exposure was inadvertent; in some cases, curiosity leads kids to X-rated sites, and then they find the exposure is unwanted. Peer pressure can be another catalyst – the fact that kids are encountering porn at "friends' houses" showed up in the data.]

"Although there is evidence that most youth are not particularly upset when they encounter unwanted pornography on the Internet, unwanted exposure could have a greater impact on some youth than voluntary encounters with pornography. Some youth may be developmentally and psychologically unprepared for unwanted exposure, and online images may be more graphic and extreme than pornography available from other sources."

Tips for preventing exposure

Filtering can help reduce unwanted exposure, the study’s authors say. But don't use it in lieu of talking with your child. And anyway, “this accidental access is really quite avoidable,” says Nancy Willard, author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens and director of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use. Here are some tips from Nancy:

* Read before you click. Do not click on a link unless you know that the site you will access is ok.
* Do not type URLs. If you want to get to a site that you have not bookmarked, type the name of the site in a search engine and then access the site through the link in the search results (checking to make sure you’re going to the site you want). If you plan to return to this site, bookmark it.
* Do not open suspicious email messages from senders you don’t know.
* If something ‘yucky’ comes up on the screen, quickly turn off the screen and tell an adult (and you will not get into trouble [right, parents?!). Practice turning off the screen so you know what to do when you want to fast.”

One more tip we use at our house: Kids use only filtered search. Most search engines offer filtering. Click on Preferences near the search box of most any search site, including Google, then – in Google's case – choose strict or moderate filtering, then click "Save Preferences." The companion rule: No one changes search settings – ever (saved preferences stay that way, even after a computer's turned off, unless someone resets them).

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