Responding to Online Pornography

“Speak openly about it. Have a normal conversation, make it a comfortable topic because it’s important.” Girl, 16[1]

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’s 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.

“Porn is sort of a fantasy; people are arranged to weird and nearly impossible positions in order to produce visually compelling images. Porn is acted, and pleasure those actors portray may not be real.” Girl, 16[2]

Young children

You don’t have to talk about pornography to prepare your kids to deal with it. Instead, you can talk about the different aspects you want them to learn about such as consent, gender stereotypes, managing online content and healthy sexuality and relationships.

  • Talk to kids about sex and healthy relationships from a very early age. They’re being exposed to sexual images in various media, so it’s important to establish an open and honest dialogue with them so they come to you with their questions. Indiana University sex researcher Bryant Paul points out that “the most important thing we are starting to take away from this is if you talk to your kids and say [pornography] shouldn’t be the standard you’re basing sex and sexuality on, the effect goes away.”[3]
  • In broader terms, exercise their critical thinking skills with regard to gender and 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. (See our section on Gender Representation for more information.)
  • Discuss the idea of consent from an early age. Don’t ever tell kids that they have to do anything physical, or allow anything to be done to their bodies, that isn’t necessary for their health or safety (such as putting on a seatbelt or getting a vaccination). For example, instead of saying “Give your grandmother a hug,” ask them “Would you like to give your grandmother a hug?”
    • You can also model digital consent from an early age by asking before you post any photos of them.
  • 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. Read our tip sheet Using Parental Controls for details on how to do this.
  • Younger kids often see inappropriate content in ads, so you should install ad-blocking plugins or apps such as Privacy Badger or Blokada on all browsers and devices (you can find alternative options here: Teach them to set content filters and limit search terms on search engines, online games and other platforms.
  • If they do stumble across pornography, stay 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. Ask them if they have any questions and work together to find ways to keep it from happening again.
    • Be sure to talk to them about how it made them feel. Reassure them that what they’re feeling is normal and that they can talk to you about it any time they want.

Tweens and teens

Research with young people suggests that the tween and early teen years (11-13) are the best time to start talking specifically about sexualized media, including pornography.[4] MediaSmarts’ research shows that older kids are more likely they are to intentionally visit to pornography sites (the figures rise from 11% in Grades seven to eight to 29% in grades nine to 11) and to be exposed to it unintentionally (25% in grades seven to eight compared to 37% in grades nine to 11).[5]

It's natural for adolescents to be curious about sexuality. It’s also natural for them to be more inclined to do their own research online rather than asking their parents awkward and embarrassing questions. 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. While fewer than half of kids say they have talked with a trusted adult about porn, almost three-quarters of those who have say the conversation “made [them] feel like there are helpful resources other than pornography to explore sex or [their] sexuality.”[6]

  • After a certain age, parental filters are no longer a viable or desirable solution, as filters indiscriminately block both pornography and good sites about sexuality. As well, close to half of Canadian teens say that they can access blocked sites[7] and research has generally found that filters are ineffective at preventing kids from seeking out porn.[8] Unlike in the days of magazines and video stores, it’s very easy for kids to be exposed to content that is more extreme than what they’re looking for. Teach them to practice “click restraint” by checking things like a video’s title, thumbnail, comments or tags before playing it (you can practice this with YouTube, although tags on that site are not visible to users).[9] Using content filters can also significantly reduce the number of sexualized videos that they see on social networks such as TikTok or Instagram.[10]
  • 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. MediaSmarts’ research found that if there is a rule in the home about sites that youth are not supposed to visit, they are somewhat less likely to have looked for pornography online (18% compared to 25% of those with no rule) and considerably more likely to take steps to avoid seeing pornography (54% of youth with the rule take steps to avoid seeing pornography, compared to 32% of youth without the rule).[11]
  • If you learn that your child has watched porn, don’t make assumptions about how it happened. While they may have sought it out intentionally, they also might have found it while looking for information on sexuality, seen it accidentally as a pop-up or on a social network, or had someone send it to them. Ask them how it happened before planning your next step:
    • If it happened accidentally, talk about ways they can stop that from happening again, like using content controls, turning off autoplay or not clicking on unknown links.
    • If they sought it out on purpose, the tips below will help you have a conversation about what they’ve seen and how it made them feel, but you don’t have to wait until kids have seen porn to talk about it!
  • Discuss the sexual messages in various media, including – but not limited to – pornography. Kids say that “messages from pornography can be compounded by messages they are exposed to in other domains. For young women in particular, problematic messages that they are exposed to in pornography are not always different from those in popular culture and society.”[12] Digital media literacy has been found to be effective both in helping youth engage with depictions of sex and relationships in sexualized media.[13]
    • However, while it is important to help kids understand that pornography is a performance rather than reality (for instance, they use theatrical devices like “cheating out” to make what they’re doing more visible to the audience[14]) it’s not enough for them to know that porn isn’t real.[15] Even if we know that something isn’t intended to directly represent reality, we may still be influenced by it, especially if we have little real-world experience with what we’re watching. For instance, viewing TV crime dramas, which make no pretense to being real, has been found to affect people’s beliefs about the criminal justice system.[16] As well, while “young people told us they knew that porn was fake… they weren’t sure that every other young person knew that.”[17]

“They’re trained professionals and most of the time, they’re not enjoying themselves. It’s just acting. I feel it sets unrealistic standards for what is actually achievable and it sets unrealistic standards for what is also safe.” (Girl, 16)

  • To help tweens and teens become more conscious of the ways in which porn doesn’t reflect reality, ask them:
    • “What do you think your friends or peers believe about porn?” To reduce the third-person effect, tell them that most young people do know that porn isn’t real – but also believe that other kids view it less critically.
    • “What do you think someone younger than you should know about pornography before they first see it?” While they may not feel that they are influenced by what they see in pornography, youth generally agree that kids younger than them are less savvy.[18]
    • “What do you know about contraception and preventing STIs? What are some reasons why audiences wouldn’t want to see, or the industry wouldn’t want to show, safe sex practices in porn?”[19]
    • “What kinds of bodies are shown in porn? Do you think there’s a difference between videos that only show a narrow range of idealized bodies and ones that show a diverse range of bodies?” You can ask this about other kinds of sexualized media, like social media, advertising or music videos, as well.

“Boys I interview typically assure me that they know the difference between fantasy and reality ... [But] they wanted to know how real, in fact, what they were seeing was and whether the behavior depicted in video clips — or some version of it — would be expected of them someday.” Peggy Orenstein, “If You Ignore Porn, You Aren’t Teaching Sex Ed.”[20]

    • If you don’t want to discuss specific tropes and techniques that make pornography less reflective of reality, ask them to imagine how cooking a meal would be different if you were doing it on-camera. What would you have to do to make sure that they could clearly see all the ingredients and all the steps in the recipe? What would you have to do to make it a good video that you wouldn’t have to do if you were just cooking at home? What parts of regular home cooking might be left out (washing hands, weighing and measuring ingredients, making and fixing mistakes, doing the dishes, etc.)?
      • These questions can also help you spot any misconceptions your child may have about pornography, relationships or sexuality.
  • Kids’ sexual scripts are less likely to be influenced by porn if they have already learned about healthy sexuality, relationships and consent.[21] Talk to your kids about healthy relationships and direct them to good-quality websites that provide information for young people on sexuality and health, such as Go Ask Alice and Sex & U and help them learn to recognize good-quality sources of information (see our lesson I Heard It ‘Round the Internet for how to do this).
  • While it’s important to make your values clear, focusing too heavily on the risks or possible negative impacts of pornography can backfire, since most teens don’t see it as being harmful to them.[22] Similarly, don’t make kids feel guilty or ashamed about watching porn if you know they have done so.[23] If you don’t want them to watch it in your home that can be one of your household rules, but for many young people – girls[24] and 2SLGBTQ[25] youth in particular – it may help them to understand and articulate their sexuality.

Instead, you can talk about some of the ethical aspects of viewing porn[26]:

    • Can you be sure that everyone in a video gave full and free consent to participating and to the video being shared? (This is a particular issue given the popularity of supposedly “amateur” porn.) [27]
    • Are any of the relationships or activities depicted in it ethically troubling?
    • What kinds of conversations do you think people who make porn have about consent? Do you think they might sometimes be pressured to consent to do things they don’t want to do, in order to meet the needs of the audience or the industry? (For instance, producers may want to include many different activities in a video so that it will be more likely to be recommended by a website’s algorithm.)
  • Are you accessing the work in such a way that the creators (including writers or illustrators of written or drawn pornography) are being paid for it?
    • Kids (and adults) who watch porn sometimes feel guilty or conflicted about being excited by things they find ethically troubling. Point out that just because we enjoy watching something does not mean we would necessarily enjoy doing it.

“It’s the fake “no” that can throw off some kids because they don’t understand. They weren’t thinking, ‘Oh this is acting. This is part of the script.’ … So you’re kind of taught from a young age that the chase is part of it and ‘no’ is up for debate.”[28]

  • Another important message to give kids about consent is that nobody should ever make them watch porn without their consent. Whether it’s somebody sending you a nude picture (either as a sexual overture or as harassment,) a friend sending you a link to a pornographic video, or somebody showing you something on their phone, you always have a right to say ‘no’ if you don’t want to see it. If someone doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, teens should block them and talk about what happened with a trusted adult.
    • Girls in the early teen years, along with boys who are gay, bisexual or questioning their sexuality, are also at higher risk of being targeted for sexual exploitation. Tell your kids to let you know if an online contact shares porn with them and to cut off contact right away if that happens.
  • Similarly, make sure they understand that sharing an intimate image of a person without their consent – so-called “revenge porn” – is not the same as watching pornography made by consenting adult performers. It’s never okay to share an intimate image of somebody without that person’s clear consent. (See our section on Sexting for more on how to address this.)

[1] The Collaborative Trust for Research & Training in Youth Health & Development. (2020) Growing up with porn: Insights from young New Zealanders

[2] Spišák, S. (2020). The intimacy effect: Girls’ reflections about pornography and ‘actual sex’. Sexualities, 23(7), 1248-1263.

[3] Quoted in Pappas, S. (2021) Teaching porn literacy. Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Assocation.

[4] The Collaborative Trust for Research & Training in Youth Health & Development. (2020) Growing up with porn: Insights from young New Zealanders

[5] MediaSmarts. (2022). “Young Canadians in a Wireless World, Phase IV: Encountering Harmful and Discomforting Content Online.” MediaSmarts. Ottawa.

[6] Robb, M., & Mann S. (2022) Teens and Pornography. Common Sense.

[7] MediaSmarts. (2022). “Young Canadians in a Wireless World, Phase IV: Life Online.” MediaSmarts. Ottawa.

[8] Przybylski, A. K., & Nash, V. (2018). Internet filtering and adolescent exposure to online sexual material. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21(7), 405-410.

[9] Vertongen, R., van Ommen, C., & Chamberlain, K. (2022). Adolescent Dilemmas About Viewing Pornography and Their Efforts to Resolve Them. Journal of Adolescent Research, 07435584221133307.

[10] Kelly, H. (2022) They came to TikTok for fun They got stuck with sexualized videos. The Washington Post.

[11] MediaSmarts. (2022). “Young Canadians in a Wireless World, Phase IV: Encountering Harmful and Discomforting Content Online.” MediaSmarts. Ottawa.

[12] Davis, A. C., Wright, C. J., Murphy, S., Dietze, P., Temple-Smith, M. J., Hellard, M. E., & Lim, M. S. (2020). A digital pornography literacy resource co-designed with vulnerable young people: Development of" The Gist". Journal of medical Internet research, 22(6), e15964.

[13] Vahedi Z, Sibalis A, Sutherland JE. Are media literacy interventions effective at changing attitudes and intentions towards risky health behaviors in adolescents? A meta-analytic review. J Adolesc. 2018;67: 140–152.

[14] O, Alice. (2023) Sex on Screen: Reality-Checking Mainstream Porn. Scarleteen.

[15] Miller, D.J.; Stubbings-Laverty, R. (2022) Does Pornography Misinform Consumers? The Association between Pornography Use and Porn-Congruent Sexual Health Beliefs. Sexes 2022, 3, 578–592.

[16] Sarapin, S. H., & Sparks, G. G. (2009). Eyewitnesses to TV versions of reality: The relationship between exposure to TV crime dramas and perceptions of the criminal justice system. How Television Shapes our Worldview: Media Representations of Social Trends and Change, 145-170.

[17] The Collaborative Trust for Research & Training in Youth Health & Development. (2020) Growing up with porn: Insights from young New Zealanders

[18] The Collaborative Trust for Research & Training in Youth Health & Development. (2020) Growing up with porn: Insights from young New Zealanders

[19] McKee, A., Dawson, A., & Kang, M. (2023). The Criteria to Identify Pornography That Can Support Healthy Sexual Development for Young Adults: Results of an International Delphi Panel. International Journal of Sexual Health, 1-12.

[20] Orenstein, P. (2021) “If you ignore porn, you aren’t teaching sex ed.” The New York Times

[21] Robb, M., & Mann S. (2022) Teens and Pornography. Common Sense.

[22] Vertongen, R., van Ommen, C., & Chamberlain, K. (2022). Adolescent Dilemmas About Viewing Pornography and Their Efforts to Resolve Them. Journal of Adolescent Research, 07435584221133307.

[23] Zurcher, J. (2017) Talking to children about pornography: Five insights. LSE Blogs.

[24] Dorosin, S. (2022) Pornography Literacy: Why We Need It and How It Can Help Us. Remake.

[25] Dawson, K., Nic Gabhainn, S., & MacNeela, P. (2020). Toward a model of porn literacy: Core concepts, rationales, and approaches. The Journal of Sex Research, 57(1), 1-15.

[26] Dorosin, S. (2022) Pornography Literacy: Why We Need It and How It Can Help Us. Remake.

[27] Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Wright, P., Paul, B., Gradus, R., Bauer, J., & Jones, R. (2020). Diverse sexual behaviors and pornography use: Findings from a nationally representative probability survey of Americans aged 18 to 60 years. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 17(4), 623-633.

[28] Dawson, K., Nic Gabhainn, S., & MacNeela, P. (2020). Toward a model of porn literacy: Core concepts, rationales, and approaches. The Journal of Sex Research, 57(1), 1-15.