Study lays bare impact of online pornography on our young people

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

“One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos – not major – just a slap here or there.”

The words of one 13-year-old boy illustrate the findings of the largest ever study to date into the impact of online pornography on young people.

The research has revealed that half of 11 to 16-year-olds have been exposed to pornography, with the vast majority having viewed it by the age of 14. Worryingly, many of these young people believe that what they have seen is “realistic” and some – especially boys – say they would like to copy it.

The research has been commissioned and published by the Children’s Commissioner for England and the NSPCC.

The findings are based on a survey of more than 1,000 children aged 11 to 16. It revealed that at least half of these young people had been exposed to online porn, with 94 per cent having seen it by the age of 14. This included 28 per cent of 11 to 12-year-olds who had seen porn online.

Children were as likely to stumble across pornography accidentally as to search for it deliberately, with two-thirds experiencing their first exposure while at home.

The researchers, from Middlesex University, also used focus groups and online forums to investigate the impact. The most common reaction was to “feel curious” (41 per cent), however the young people also reported feeling shocked (27 per cent), confused (24 per cent) or disgusted (23 per cent).

Around a fifth of children who had seen porn were made to feel either repulsed or anxious by what they had seen and younger children were more likely to be disturbed by viewing porn. One 11-year-old girl said: “I didn’t like it because it came on by accident and I don’t want my parents to find out and the man looked like he was hurting her. He was holding her down and she was screaming and swearing.”

There is also evidence that the young people in the study were becoming desensitised to the pornography. Follow up work revealed that the proportion of those who continued to feel “shocked” or “disgusted” about the porn they saw dropped over time to eight and 13 per cent respectively.

The study also adds to the growing concerns about the danger of boys’ attitudes to sex and relationships being warped by pornography.

Boys, the researchers found, wanted to copy some of the behaviour they had seen. This included 39 per cent of 13 and 14-year-olds and 21 per cent of 11 and 12-year-olds. Furthermore, 53 per cent of boys believed that the pornography they had seen was realistic compared to 39 per cent of girls. This was despite 87 per cent of boys (and 77 per cent of girls) agreeing that pornography did not help them understand consent.

Some girls expressed worries about how porn would make boys see girls and the impact on attitudes to sex and relationships.

One girl, aged 13, said: “It can make a boy not look for love, just look for sex and it can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it.”

One boy, aged 13, said: “One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos – not major – just a slap here or there.”

Another 13-year-old girl said: “A few of my friends have used it for guidance about sex and are getting the wrong image of relationships.”

The young people said that lessons on pornography healthy relationships and consent as part of PSHE were helpful but the research revealed that sex and relationships education (SRE) was “patchy” for the students researchers spoke to.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “Many young people who view pornography are disturbed by it and many may not feel able to talk through their feelings to a parent or other trusted adult.

“Only now are we beginning to understand its impact on ‘SmartPhone kids’ – the first generation to have been raised with technology that’s taken the internet from the front room, where parents can monitor use, to their bedrooms or the playground, where they can’t.

“The government and internet providers have done much to restrict children’s access to pornography but there is no room for complacency – parents, teachers, regulators and the digital industry must not let up in efforts to do so. They must also do more to help children who do see porn to understand what they have seen. We know from the research that very many children are shocked, confused or disgusted by what they see and it is our duty to help them to question, challenge and make sense of it.”

Peter Wanless, the NSPCC’s chief executive, said: “Frighteningly, some children are growing up believing that they should emulate the behaviour they see in porn, which can have a damaging effect on their relationships. Exposing children to porn at a young age before they are equipped to cope with it can be extremely damaging.

“Industry and government need to take more responsibility to ensure that young people are protected. Some companies have taken the initiative when it comes to online safety, we will continue to put pressure on those that have not yet done so.

“Building children’s digital resilience is vital. We need to enhance their awareness and critical understanding and ensure sex is placed in the context of loving, respectful relationships based on mutual consent. Age appropriate SRE in schools, dealing with issues such as online pornography and children sending indecent images, is crucial.”

The research co-lead Dr Elena Martellozzo added: “There is a huge task ahead for parents, teachers and policy-makers. We found that children and young people need safe spaces where they can freely discuss the full range of issues related to sex, relationships and the accessibility of online porn in the digital age. Children should be protected from pressures to share sexual language, images and encouraged to explore issues of consent and relationships in age-appropriate, gender-balanced ways.”

The report, entitled ‘I wasn’t sure if it was normal to watch it’, can be downloaded at


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