Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.

Raising Kind Kids


Should We Teach Kids About Porn's Harms? Yes, and Here's How

Growing evidence documents its dangers.

Posted Nov 18, 2019

Sean Covey, son of the famous Stephen Covey, has written a terrific book for teens that I regularly recommend to parents: The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make.

It’s full of wise, down-to-earth advice regarding the decisions teenagers have to make about friends, school, their relationship with their parents, love, sex, self-worth, and addictions.

In the chapter on addictions, Covey calls pornography “the addiction of the 21st Century.” The sexual revolution normalized pornography. The Internet made it ubiquitous.

Why should we be concerned about porn’s effects on our children’s sexual attitudes and behavior—and how can we talk to them about it?

When Do Kids Start Watching Porn?

Unfortunately, exposure to Internet pornography is happening at younger and younger ages. Experts estimate that in the U.S. and UK, the average age at which boys begin to access Internet pornography is now 11. 

If you have an elementary school-age child, I encourage you to read, together, a picture book titled Good Pictures, Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids by Kristen Jenson and Gail Poyner.

The authors acknowledge that good parents want to protect their children’s innocence. But they point out, “Children all over the world begin viewing hard-core Internet pornography long before their parents even consider discussing its dangers.”

What Does Internet Porn Show?

What are kids seeing when they look at the hard-core pornography that has become popular on the Internet? 

Gail Dines, a Wheelock College women’s studies professor and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, has been lecturing on pornography for more than two decades.

She says she consistently finds that most women, and some men, have an idea of pornography that is 20 years out of date. What comes to their minds is often a Playboy centerfold. 

To show her audiences what contemporary pornography is like, Dines uses a PowerPoint presentation consisting of snapshots from the popular hard-core porn sites (known as “gonzo” in the industry). 

To randomly sample Internet pornography, Dines began by typing “porn” into Google and clicking on some of the sites that appeared on the first page. In her book Pornland , she writes that “however extreme the scenes I describe sound, my descriptions are nothing compared to actually viewing porn.” She continues:

Some of the most popular acts advertised and depicted during my quick search were:

(1) vaginal, anal, and oral penetration of a woman by three or more men at the same time; (2) double anal, in which a woman is penetrated anally by two men at the same time; (3) double vagina, in which a woman is penetrated vaginally by two men at the same time; (4) gagging, in which a woman has a penis thrust so far down her throat that she gags; and (5) bukkake, in which any number of men ejaculate, often at the same time, onto a woman’s body, face, hair, eyes, ears, or mouth. 

In her 2016 bestselling book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, the award-winning journalist Nancy Jo Sales provides further evidence of porn’s sometimes brutal and misogynist treatment of women:

The words the porn industry uses to describe its videos tell the story: women are “pounded,” “railed,” and “jackhammered,” called “c*nts,” “sluts,” “b*tches,” and “whores.” A search for “violent sex” on the Internet turns up millions of results.

A 2007 content analysis of 50 of the most popular Internet videos found that most scenes portrayed verbal and physical abuse. Gang rape and repeated anal sex were frequently featured. Always, the female performers appeared to be enjoying the abuse and humiliation.   

If you find any of this hard to read, imagine it going into the mind of a 16-year-old or 6-year-old—and staying there and potentially affecting their values, character, and how they think about sex. A 2016 Middlesex University study of British 11- to 16-year-olds found that:

  • More than half of the boys (53 percent) said they thought Internet pornography is a “realistic depiction of sex.” 
  • Four out of 10 girls agreed.
  • By the time they were 13-14 years old, 40 percent of the boys said they wanted to copy the behaviors they had seen. 

We may work hard as parents to instill certain virtues when our kids are children—and then see it all contradicted and perhaps put at risk later when they are drawn into a very different sexual culture. 

The Effects of Porn: An Experimental Study

There are still some people who will say the jury is out on whether pornography can cause harm. That’s increasingly difficult to maintain in the light of the research.

The psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in The Brain That Changes Itself, was one of the first to report that persistent pornography use was associated with male sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction and loss of attraction to real partners. 

After men are exposed to pornography, they rate themselves as less in love with their partner and are more critical of their partner’s appearance and sexual performance. Men’s pornography consumption has also been linked to the extent to which they believe rape myth ideology (the belief that women cause or enjoy sexual assault).

Even before the Internet, a time when pornography was tame compared to today, there was experimental evidence of its negative effects. 

In a 1988 experiment by Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, published in the Journal of Family Studies, college-age subjects viewed pornographic material for six weeks. A randomly assigned control group did not.

According to the researchers, those who viewed pornography over the six-week period, compared to the non-viewing control group:

  • became more interested in extreme forms of pornography
  • considered rape less of a crime
  • were more likely to believe that promiscuity is normal
  • were more accepting of sexual infidelity
  • valued marriage less
  • in the case of males, expressed less desire to have children
  • in the case of women, expressed less desire to have a daughter

This experiment was rightly controversial because it exposed participants, without their informed consent, to something that could've potentially harmed them. But because of its inclusion of a control group, this study provided experimental evidence that viewing pornography could cause significant changes in attitudes and values.

Teens’ Viewing of Internet Porn: GlobaI Findings 

In 2012, the journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity (vol. 19) published a research review by Eric Owens et al., “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents.”  

It examined dozens of studies of teens in countries as diverse as Canada, China, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Among the findings:

  • The more frequently teens view sexually explicit Internet material, the stronger their interest in sex and the more they become distracted by their thoughts about sex.
  • The more boys consume pornography, the more likely they are to approve of early sex.  
  • Girls report feeling physically inferior to the women they see in pornographic material. Boys worry that they may not be able to perform as the men in pornographic films do. 
  • The more teens watch porn, the more likely some are to engage in high-risk sexual behaviors such as anal sex, sex with multiple partners, and sex while using drugs.
  • When teens view pornography that depicts violence, they are more likely to become aggressive in their own sexual behavior.
  • The more pornography boys view, the more likely they are to agree that it’s acceptable to hold a girl down and force her to have sex.

What Can We Say to Our Kids?

The reasons from the list below that you might choose to give or emphasize with your kids will depend on their age and personality and your own moral and religious convictions.

  • Pornography sometimes treats people as objects to be used and abused for the sexual pleasure of viewers and the profit of the pornographers. But every person has human dignity and should never be disrespected or exploited. 
  • Sex is an important way of expressing and deepening love between people. Porn sometimes separates sex from love. It can give a false picture of human sexuality as being abusive and often violent—the opposite of what sex is really like in relationships that are loving. 
  • Because pornography can influence what the brain finds sexually attractive, it may reduce users’ ability to have normal sexual relationships with real people. 
  • A woman whose husband uses pornography may feel like the victim of an affair. Porn use by women has recently been found to be a factor in some divorces.
  • What does our faith teach about the purposes of sex (such as “to express and deepen love,” “bring children into the world,” etc.)? Is porn consistent with that?

If we find that our children have been exposed to porn—accidentally or intentionally—we need to listen calmly to how that happened and explain lovingly and clearly why pornography can be harmful and then make a positive plan for the future, including what to say and do if someone shows them pornography.

With Elementary School Children

If you have an elementary school-aged child, Kristen Jenson and Gail Poyner’s Good Pictures, Bad Pictures is a good place to start. It’s illustrated with warm drawings of parents with their children and is written in sensitive, gentle language. For example:

Some pictures are good, like pictures of our family and friends. Bad pictures show the private parts of the body that we cover with a swimsuit.

A book like this helps you to explain, with a minimum of embarrassment, what pornography is and what your child should do if he or she sees it. It teaches kids a 5-step CAN DO plan to use if they encounter pornography:

  1. Close my eyes.
  2. Always tell a trusted adult.
  3. Name it when I see it.
  4. Distract myself.
  5. Order my thinking brain to be the boss!

How Porn Can Get Into School

In a 2017 post on her blog, Jenson alerts readers to 5 back-to-school dangers related to pornography:

  1. Smartphones. Kids bring them to school and may share XXX videos on the bus or playground.
  2. School computers. Even innocent searches for images can bring up pornography.
  3. Library databases can link kids to pornographic books.
  4. Slang terms about sex or porn may spark curiosity and often lead to online searches and pornography.
  5. Sexualized conversations or behaviors acted out by children who have viewed pornography or been sexually abused, can stimulate interest on the part of other kids. 

In one incident, for example, a third-grade girl overheard a classmate say that her father made her watch videos of naked people. The mother of the third-grader who overheard this comment says:

Because we had discussed the dangers of pornography at home, she knew how to react. She told her teacher, and the school responded by addressing the needs of the student and putting a stop to the father’s abuse.

With middle schoolers and up, I recommend sitting down with them and checking out two complementary websites: Fight the New Drug and Porn Kills Love. Both were created by young adults who have launched a worldwide movement that uses science to educate people about the dangers of pornography.

I encourage you to do everything possible to protect your kids from porn and to teach them why they should protect themselves from all the ways it can harm them. In our current culture, this is not one conversation but many.

Ask them to be sure to come to you for understanding and loving, supportive help if they are ever exposed to pornography or in any way become involved in it. 

Finally, talking to our kids about the dangers of porn will be more effective if it’s part of a bigger vision—of what makes sex most meaningful, truly loving, and happiness-enhancing.