Responding to Online Pornography

Given the high likelihood that youth are going to come across or seek out online pornography at one point or another, not to mention the many messages they receive about sex through other media, it is important that parents take an active role in their kids’ Internet use and start talking to them about healthy relationships and sexuality at early ages to help them contextualize and make decisions about what they’re seeing online.

Young children

  • Talk to kids about sex and healthy relationships from a very early age. They are being exposed to sexual images in various media so you need to establish an open and honest dialogue with them so they will come to you with their questions. Miranda Horvath, a professor at Middlesex University and a contributor to the UK Children’s Commissioner’s report on porn and young people, points out that “if we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.” [1]
  • In broader terms, exercise their critical thinking skills with regard to sexual stereotypes. Point out how boys and girls are depicted on toy packages, in clothing catalogues, in advertisements or in movies. Discuss how these stereotypes differ from their own reality.
  • Use filtering software on your computer or subscribe to a service through your Internet service provider to block sexually explicit content. If this becomes impractical because your child wants or needs fuller access to the Web, use the parental filtering options available in search engines like Google.
  • If they do stumble across pornography, remain calm. In many cases these sites pop up accidentally and are difficult to leave, which can be very upsetting for kids. Don’t overreact: we want children to feel comfortable turning to us for help and advice when these incidents happen.

Tweens and teens

MediaSmarts’ research [2] shows that older kids are more likely they are to pay purposeful visits to pornography sites (the figures rise from seven percent to 35 percent between Grade 7 and Grade 11).

It is natural for adolescents to be curious about sexuality. It is also natural for them to be more inclined to do their own research online rather than asking their parents awkward and embarrassing questions. The problem with pornography is that it is an unhealthy response to a healthy concern.

  • After a certain age, parental filters are no longer a viable or desirable solution as filters indiscriminately block both pornographic and good sites on sexuality. The best approach for parents of tweens and teens is an ongoing dialogue that acknowledges their interest in relationships and sex as normal and helps them develop the critical thinking skills they need to make good online decisions.
  • Discuss the sexual messages in various media. Media literacy has been found to be effective both in helping youth understand how depictions of sex and relationships in sexualized media are inaccurate and to resist peer pressure. [3] Help your kids understand the harmful effects of images that degrade and exploit women or girls or that pressure boys to conform to a male-gendered model centred on sexual attractiveness and prowess. Don’t focus only on sex: it’s important also to look at the gender stereotypes that may be communicated and perpetuated by mass media and contribute to the sexual roles portrayed in pornography and “pornified” media. [4]
  • Direct your kids to good-quality websites that provide information for young people on sexuality and health. If the only information your kids are receiving about sexuality is from porn sites, you have a problem. Explore with them the differences between normal, healthy sexual expression and the exploitive activity that is so prevalent online.
  • Establish clear rules about visiting pornographic sites. Making your values and expectations clear to your kids is one of the most effective ways of influencing their behaviour. Sex therapist Marty Klein suggests that “you start before there’s a problem, by shaping a vision of what their values are and how they want to deal with all this sex that’s all over the place. This should be a conversation they can understand that doesn’t demonize porn. If the conversation is, ‘This stuff is garbage,’ ‘it’s for losers,’ ‘it’s dangerous,’ ‘it has no value,’ young people are not going to pay attention.” [5] MediaSmarts’ research found that if there is a rule in the home about not visiting inappropriate sites, students are more likely to say they have never looked for pornography online and, in particular, are less likely to seek it out once a month or more. (Having this rule was also associated with students being exposed to less racist and sexist content.) [6] Unfortunately, boys – who are most likely to seek out pornography online – are less likely than girls to have a rule in the home on this topic. [7]


[1] Segal, David. “Does porn hurt children?” The New York Times, March 28 2014.
[2] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age. MediaSmarts, 2014.
[3] Pinkleton, Bruce, et al. “The role of media literacy in shaping adolescents understanding of and responses to sexual portrayals in mass media.” Journal of Health Commuication. 2012;17(4):460-76
[4] Scull, Tracy Marie et al. “A Media Literacy Education Approach to Teaching Adolescents Comprehensive Sexual Health Education.” Journal of Media Literacy Education 6:1, 1-14.
[5] Bielski, Zosia. “A new skill set for teens: Porn literacy.” The Globe and Mail, March 6, 2013.
[6] Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age. MediaSmarts: Ottawa.
[7] Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. MediaSmarts: Ottawa.