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Impact of Pornography on Children & Teens

Pornography Intervention - A Training Resource
By Jim Messina, Ph.D., CCMHC, NCC, DCMHS-T
Impact of Pornography on Teens and Young Adults

This section takes research on the Impact of Pornography from a historical perspective starting from the earliest research up to the present. However it is important to begin with a January 19, 2016 study done by the Barna Group for Covenant Eyes, Inc. The Survey Report is called: The Porn Phenomenon: Survey of US Teens and Adults. You can reach the summary of this report on the Covenant Eyes Website at:

Key take aways from this report were:
  1. What is Porn? The study found that the most significant factor for considering an image as porn was if the image involved sexual intercourse and that sexual plays an important factor in a person considering an image as porn
  2. Teens and young adults consider more types of images as porn than do adults
  3. Teens and young adults consider not recycling more immoral than viewing porn
  4. Young Adults ages 18-24 are least likely to say that porn is bad for society
  5. More than half of teens and young adults speak of porn in a way that is completely accepting and only a small percentage talk about pron in a disagreeable way
  6. Only child pornography and "painful sex" are considered "always wrong" by a majority of people
  7. Two thirds of teens and young adults have received a sexually explicit image from their girl/boyfriend or friend

Historical Perspective of Research on the Impact of Pornography on Teens and Young Adults

In a 2008 survey of college students used to examine exposure to Internet pornography before the age of 18, those surveyed responded as follows:

  • 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to pornography before 18
  • 14% of boys and 9% of girls were exposed to pornography before 13
  • 69% of boys and 23% of girls have spent at least 30 consecutive minutes viewing Internet pornography on at least one occasion
  • 63% of boys have done so more than once, and 35% of boys have done so on more than 10 occasions
  • 83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online
  • 69% of boys and 55% of girls have seen same-sex intercourse online
  • 39% of boys and 23% of girls have seen sexual bondage online
  • 32% of boys and 18% of girls have seen bestiality online
  • 18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence online
  • 15% of boys and 9% of girls have seen child pornography.

These findings concluded that 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence. Exposure prior to age 13 was relatively uncommon (at the time). Boys were more likely to be exposed at an earlier age, to see more images, to see more extreme images (e.g., rape, child pornography), and to view

pornography more often, while girls reported more involuntary exposure. If participants in this study are typical of young people, exposure to pornography on the Internet can be described as a normative experience, and more study of its impact is clearly needed (Sabina, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2008).


According to a 2009 study:

  • 96% of teens interviewed had Internet access
  • 55.4% reported that they had visited a sexually explicit website

The findings of this study concluded that adolescents exposed to these sites are more likely to have

  • multiple lifetime sexual partners
  • had more than one sexual partner in the last 3 months
  • used alcohol or other substances at their last sexual encounter (Braun-Courville & Rojas, 2009).

Teens and Sexting - Pew Research Center  2009

In a nationally representative survey of those ages 12-17 conducted on landline and cell

phones, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in 2009 found:

  • 4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging
  • 15% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phone

Older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images:

  • 8% of 17-year-olds with cell phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text and 30% have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone.

The teens who pay their own phone bills are more likely to send “sexts”:

  • 17% of teens who pay for all of the costs associated with their cell phones send sexually suggestive images via text; just 3% of teens who do not pay for, or only pay for a portion of the cost of the cell phone send these images.

This study revealed that there are three main scenarios for sexting:

  1. Exchange of images solely between two romantic partners
  2. Exchanges between partners that are shared with others outside the relationship
  3. Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where at least one person hopes to be (Lenhart, 2009).

Results of the Cox Communications Survey in 2009: Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey Research Findings May 2009 - Cyberbullying, Sexting, and Parental Controls (Cox Communications, 2009)

Here is a general summary of these findings and be ready to compare these findings to their 2014 survey which will appear in chronological order below in this segment.


General Technology use:

  • Teens in 2009 were well connected, with strong majorities having their own email address and cell phone
  • They spent substantial amounts of time online, doing a variety of activities, such as emailing, researching, playing games, and using social networking sites

Social Networking Sites/ Public Materials Online:

  • Though they were aware of the risks, many teens exposed personal information about themselves online anyway
  • Nearly three-quarters of teens had an online profile on a social networking site, where many teens have posted photos of themselves and their friends, among other personal information

Social Networking Sites – Safety:

  • Meanwhile, there was definitely a conflict when it came to safety.  Teens appeared aware and concerned about the risks of putting such personal information out in the open.
  • Three in five teens said having personal information or photos on a public site was unsafe and one in four said they know someone who had had something bad happen to them because of information posted electronically
  • Yet, half had posted photos of friends and three in five had posted photos of themselves


  • Cyberbullying was widespread among teens then, with over one-third having experienced it, engaged in it, or known of friends who have who had done either. 


  • While many teens who had bullied others had also been bullied themselves, the reasons for bullying vs. the reasons why those bullied think they are, varies dramatically.  
  • Those who are bullied think bullies do so to be mean, for fun or entertainment, to show off to friends, or out of jealousy
  • However, bullies usually justify their actions by saying they are getting back at someone or because the person deserved it.

Cyberbullying – Getting Caught:

  • Most teens think that bullying online is easier to get away with and to hide from their parents than bullying in person
  • However, nearly half of those who had been bullied say the bully was caught – far more than the 28% of bullies who admit to having been caught.

Cyberbullying – Consequences:

  • A substantial amount of teens agreed bullying online is worse than bullying in person
  • Two-thirds think it’s a serious problem (especially among those who are bullied)
  • Even more think there should be stricter rules about online bullying, even though half already think that there are serious legal consequences for those who get caught

Sexting-Profile and Experience:

  • About one in five teens had engaged in sexting – sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos through text message or email
  • Over a third knew of a friend who had sent or received these kinds of messages. 
  • Most sext senders say these messages are most commonly sent to boyfriends/girlfriends because it’s asked of them or to have fun
  • Disturbingly however, about 1 in 10 sext senders say they have sent these messages to people they don’t even know

Sexting – Attitudes:

  • The majority of teens thought sending sexts of someone under 18 is wrong, and even half of those who have engaged in it agree, while 80% of teen sexters are under 18. 
  • Seven in 10 think people their age are too young to be sexting, but about half think they are old enough to decide for themselves if it’s all right

Sexting-Getting Caught:

  • Nearly all teens thought that it’s dangerous to sext, including sexters themselves. 
  • Only a small portion of sexters have been caught in the act
  • About half of teens agree that adults overreact about sexting
  • That when someone gets caught teen agree there are serious legal consequences

Parental Controls- General:

What do parents really know about their children’s activities online? 

  • About 2 in 5 teens say they told their parents very little or nothing about what they did and where they went online
  • While about three-quarters of teens say their parents have talked to them about online safety, only half of children say they are given some kind of limits or controls when they use the Internet. 
  • Among those who have controls, about one in four have figured out some way of getting around them

Parental Controls – Cell Phone:

  • In 2009, teens were left high and dry when it comes to going online on their cell phones
  • About 1 in 5 teens go online on a cell phone and 1 in 5 of those teens say their parents do not know they do this
  • The vast majority of teens whose parents know they go online through their cell phone say that they are not given any limits or controls – far fewer than are given limits on their desktop or laptop (Cox Communications, 2009).

Lack of Congruity between Parent’s Perceptions and Teen’s Behaviors (2010)

In 2010 an National Study of Adolescent Health factors was used to look at the incongruence between parents’ and adolescents’ reports of teen sexual experience. The study found that:

  • Most parents of virgins accurately reported teens’ lack of experience, but most parents of teens who had had sex provided inaccurate reports
  • Many adolescent-, parent-, and family-level factors predicted the accuracy of parents’ reports
  • Parents’ accurate knowledge of their teens’ sexual experience was not found to be consistently beneficial for teens’ subsequent sexual outcomes
  • Rather, parents’ expectations about teens’ sexual experience created a self-fulfilling prophecy, with teens’ subsequent sexual outcomes conforming to parents’ expectations.

These findings suggest that parents often believe one thing they want to believe and teens are willing to have their parents act on such beliefs so as to take the focus off of their own real behaviors which are not favored by their parents (Mollborn & Everett, 2010).


Youth Internet Safety Survey (2010)

According to the third Youth Internet Safety Survey, published in 2010, the ages when youth were unwillingly exposed to nudity online were:

  • 10-12: 15%
  • 13-15: 23%
  • 16-17: 28%

There has been decline in online sexual solicitations between 2000 and 2010, A study investigated this using three cross-sectional, nationally representative telephone surveys of 3561 youth Internet users in the United States, ages 10 through 17 (1501 in YISS-1; 1500 in YISS-2; 1560 in YISS-3) (Mitchell, Jones, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2013).   


Unwanted online sexual solicitation was defined as requests to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult. The decline in unwanted sexual solicitations from

  • 19% in 2000 to
  • 13% in 2005 to
  • 9% in 2010 was driven by a reduction in youth who were being asked to talk about sex or for personal sexual information online.

Pre-teens (ages 10–12) accounted for the majority of this decline. Multiple solicitations over the course of a year also decreased.

More solicitations occurred at the hands of people youth knew in person prior to the incident – mainly

  • friends and
  • acquaintances, and less so at the hands of people youth met online.

By 2010 most solicitations were occurring through social networking sites. Victims were disclosing solicitation incidents at greater rates in 2010 – mostly to friends (Mitchell, Jones, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2013).  

Results of McAfee Survey: The Digital Divide: How the Online Behavior of Teens is Getting Past Parents (McAfee, 2012)

In 2012, research done by McAfee an internet provider, conducted by 2,017 online interviews with teens, ages 13-17, and parents of teens. This report with led off with this quote: "The fact is that allowing teens to participate in unmonitored online activity exposes them to real dangers with real consequences, and these dangers are growing exponentially with the proliferation of social networks" This study found that:

  • 71% of teens have done something to hide what they do online from their parents (this includes clearing browser history, minimizing a browser when in view, deleting inappropriate videos, lying about behavior, using a phone instead of a computer, and blocking parents with social media privacy settings, using private browsing, disabling parental controls, or having e-mail or social media accounts unknown to parents).
  • 32% of teens admit to intentionally accessing nude or pornographic content online. Of these, 43% do so on a weekly basis. Only 12% of parents knew their teens were accessing pornography.


The study also exposed ten ways teens are hiding their online activities from their parents:

  1. Clearing the browser history (53%)
  2. Close/minimize browser when parent walked in (46%)
  3. Hide or delete IMs or videos (34%)
  4. Lie or omit details about online activities (23%)
  5. Use a computer their parents don’t check (23%)
  6. Use an internet-enabled mobile device (21%)
  7. Use privacy settings to make certain content viewable only by friends (20%)
  8. Use private browsing modes (20%)
  9. Create private email address unknown to parents (15%)
  10. Create duplicate/fake social network profiles (9%)


Despite their awareness of online dangers, teens continue to take risks by posting personal information and risky photos online, without their parents knowing. Many teens are accessing inappropriate online content, despite 73.5% of parents whom trust their teens to not access age-inappropriate content online. Specifically:

  • 43% of teens have accessed simulated violence online
  • 36% have access sexual topics online
  • 32% have accessed nude content or pornography online

Nearly half of parents believe their teens tell them everything they do online and insist they are in control when it comes to monitoring their teen’s online behaviors. However, this study revealed that teens deceiving their parents are on the rise, as

  • over 70% of teens in 2012 had found ways to avoid parental monitoring, compared to 2010
  • 45% of teens had hidden their online behavior from a parent


This study found that as teens continue to outsmart their parents online, more and more teens are participating in dangerous and even illegal activities

  • 15% of these teens have hacked a social network account
  • 30.7% access pirated movies and music
  • 8.7% had hacked someone’s email online,

while less than 15% of parents are aware their children are engaging in any of these behaviors.


Instant access to information has also made it easier than ever for teens to cheat in school with:

  • 16% of teens in this study having admitted to looking for test answers on their phone
  • 48.1% of teens having looked up answers online.

Meanwhile 77.2% of parents said they were not very or not at all worried about their teens cheating online, again showing the disconnect


An Online Safety Expert for McAfee was quoted in the 2012 study as saying: “While it is not necessarily surprising that teens are engaging in the same types of rebellious behaviors online that they exhibit offline, it is surprising how disconnected their parents are. There is a major increase in the number of teens finding ways to hide what they do online from their parents, as compared to the 2010 study. This is a generation that is so comfortable with technology that they are surpassing their parents in understanding and getting away with behaviors that are putting their safety at risk.”


In addition to putting themselves in risky situations, teens are finding that much of this online behavior is attributing to personal problems. In fact, over half of teens with a social network account have already experienced negative consequences as a result of being on a social network account, such as:

  • arguing with friends (35.4%)
  • getting into trouble at home or school (25.2%)
  • ending friendships (20%)
  • fearing for their safety (6.8%)
  • physical fights (4.5%).

Conversely, many parents live in denial, with only 22% claiming that their teens can get into that much trouble online.


This study found that instant access to information and digital devices is having an impact on our teens that many parents don’t realize. Some of the revealing consequences are:

  • Friendships – 20% of teens said they had ended a friendship with someone because of something that happened on a social network.
  • Physical safety – 7% feared for their safety because of something that happened online, and 5% reported getting into a physical fight because of a problem that started online. More than 1 in 10 (12%) of teens have met someone in real life that they only knew online.
  • Criminal record – 15% said they have hacked someone’s social networking account and 31% have pirated music and movies.
  • Cheating – 48% of teens admitted to looking for test answers online, and 16% have used a smartphone to do this.
  • Innocence – 46% of teens report accidentally accessing pornography online and 32% reported accessing pornography intentionally

Whereas the study found out this about parents:

  • 1 in 3 believes their teen to be much more tech-savvy then they are, leaving them feeling helpless to keep up with their teen’s online behaviors.
  • 22% of parents do not believe their kids can get into trouble online.
  • Less than 1 in 10 parents are aware their teens are hacking accounts or downloading pirated content.
  • 78% of parents are not worried about their kids cheating at school.
  • Only 12% of parents thought their children accessed pornography online (Le, 2012). 

Despite the classic “not my kid” denial, many parents are starting to up the ante with online monitoring to help keep their kids safe online by:

  • setting parental controls (49%)
  • obtaining email and social network passwords (44%)
  • taking away computer and mobile devices (27%)
  • using location-based devices to keep track of teens (10%)

But there are still some parents so overwhelmed by technology that they are throwing up their hands and hoping for the best. In fact, 23% of the surveyed parents disclosed that they are not monitoring their children’s online behaviors because they are overwhelmed by technology (McAfee, 2012).

Results of the COX Communications: 2014 Teen Internet Safety Survey (Cox Communications, 2014)

In 2014 Cox Communications published their latest internet safety survey results.

Top Three Points in Survey Results:

1. More than half of teens have witnessed cyberbullying on social media.

2. Smartphones are quickly becoming the go-to device for online activity.

3. Nine in 10 teens say their parents have talked to them about online safety.

Cyberbullying is prevalent in this survey: 54% of teens surveyed have witnessed online bullying

  • 39% on Facebook
  • 29% on YouTube
  • 22% on Twitter
  • 22% on Instagram

Bullying online prevalence is increasing

  • 24% of teens reported being bullied online (compared to 31% the previous year)
  • 60% of teens who admit to being bullied online have told an adult (compared to 40% the previous year)

Teens who report being bullied say they it was because of their:

  • 61% appearance
  • 25% academic achievement/intelligence
  • 17% race
  • 15% sexuality
  • 15% financial status
  • 11% religion
  • 20% other

Time Spent online: Teens report spending several hours a day online via many devices:

  • On average, teens spend 5 hours and 38 minutes online every day
  • Nearly half of that time is spend playing online games
  • Numbers vary slightly amongst different demographics
  • Younger teens spend slightly less time at 5 hours and 15 minutes
  • On average, male teenagers spend an hour more thanfemale teens playing online games

Devices: 99% of teens access the Internet via a “Mobile” Device:

  • 81% Smartphone
  • 84% Laptop
  • 61% Tablet
  • 43% MP3 Player with Internet access
  • 40% Handheld Gaming Device with Internet Access
  • 32% E-Reader with Internet Access

Interacting online: 92% are social network users and share online:

  • Photos or videos (74%)
  • Age (47%)
  • Risky online comments or posts (24%)
  • Physical location (21%)
  • Cell phone number (15%)
  • Address (9%)

Nearly 3 in 4 online gamers interact with other gamers online

  • Web chat (50%)
  • Voice chat (44%)
  • Web cam (20%)

18% have considered meeting with someone in person whom they first met online.

  • Of these, 58% have actually met up with someone in person.

Parenting Monitoring: With the increase of teens using mobile devices and social media, we also see an increase in parent discussions about Internet Safety.

  • 9 in 10 teens say their parents have talked to them about Internet safety.

Among those:

  • 86% say the talk has occurred within the last year.
  • However, nearly half (49%) of teens claim their parents do nothing to monitor their devices.

Hiding Content: More parents are working to protect their teens online, however:

  • Nearly half of teens admit to taking action to hide their online behavior from parents
  • 46% have cleared their search history and/or cookies on their browser
  • 1 in 5 have used a private browsing feature so their parents can’t see the sites they’ve visited
  • A few (8%) have disabled the software their parents installed on the internet device (Cox Communications, 2014)

Teens and Sexting (2013, 2014)

Sexting is sending or posting a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of oneself. A study in 2013, found that older teens are more likely to report having sent a sext:

  • 4% of 12-year-olds have sent a sext
  • 7% of 14-17-year-olds have sent a sext
  • 9% of 13-18-year-olds have sent a sext
  • 19% of 18-24-year-olds have sent a sext
  • 21% of black and Hispanic youth in 10th grade have sent a sext (Peskin, Markham, Addy, Shegog, Thiel & Tortolero, 2013)


Several scholars have argued that adolescents’ sexting behavior might be influenced by their media use. A study in 2014 set out to find empirical evidence of the link between media socialization and engagement in sexting behavior by investigating whether music video and pornography consumption are able to predict a range of sexting behaviors. The results demonstrate that sexting behaviors were significantly associated with the

  • consumption of pornography, when controlling for age, gender, school track, and Internet use
  • the significant relationship between engagement in the four types of sexting behavior (1) sending a text message about sex (e.g., an instant message, e-mail, or text message) to someone else (2) sending a sexually suggestive picture or video or had a sexually suggestive webcam conversation in which they were depicted in their underwear or half-naked (3) asking someone they knew to send a sexually suggestive picture or video (4) receiving a sexually explicit picture or video from someone
  • pornography use held true for both boys and girls
  • Music video consumption was only significantly associated with asking someone for a sexting message and having received a sexting message (Van Ouytsel, Ponnet & Walrave, 2014)

Types of Pornography preferred by youth (2015)

A study of 16- to 18-year-old urban-residing, low-income Black or Hispanic youth in 2015 found that:

  • Youth primarily reported watching pornography that featured one-on-one sexual intercourse but also reported having seen extreme pornography (e.g., public humiliation, incest)
  • Youth reported watching pornography on home computers or smartphones, and that pornography was frequently watched in school
  • Youth reported watching for entertainment, for sexual stimulation, instructional purposes, and to alleviate boredom and many copied what they saw in pornography during their own sexual encounters
  • Pressure to make or to imitate pornography was an element of some unhealthy dating relationships
  • Parents were generally described as unsupportive of youth’s use of pornography but underequipped to discuss it
  • Approximately one-fifth expressed a preference for pornography featuring actors of their same race and ethnicity (Rothman, Kaczmarsky, Burke, Jansen & Baughman, 2015)
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