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Teens Are Watching Pornography, and It's Time to Talk About It

New research confirms that most teens surveyed have seen online pornography, but conversations with trusted adults can point them toward healthy ways to explore their sexuality.

Hands holding a phone in front of a face

Since people first began to surf the web from home, adults have worried about kids getting access to pornography. Many parents and caregivers spend considerable energy controlling access and monitoring what kids do online, in large part to make sure they aren't seeing mature content that's not appropriate for them—a job that's harder to do when smartphones and personal devices make online access so pervasive and private.

This is true for our Common Sense Media community of parents and caregivers. After ratings and reviews, the second most common reason why people come to commonsensemedia.org is to figure out how to keep their kids from coming across pornography online.

Yet no matter what parents and caregivers, educators, and policymakers have put in place to prevent it, we can no longer ignore that teens are seeing pornography.

Our new research report, "Teens and Pornography," surveyed a demographically representative set of teens (age 13–17) in the U.S. to understand how they interact with online pornography. We asked teens how old they were when they first saw pornography, how often they viewed it, and how it has impacted their feelings about sex and relationships. The report finds that the majority of teen respondents age 13–17 in our survey have watched pornography online. While some have come across it accidentally while browsing, a significant number of teens are viewing pornography intentionally.

A combination of factors could be driving interest and curiosity among teens, from much easier access to pornography online to kids reaching adolescence at earlier ages.

Still, most parents and caregivers haven't had conversations with their teens about pornography. Given its prevalence and how viewing pornography can influence kids' perceptions and feelings about body image, sex, and relationships, it's time for caregivers to start having conversations about pornography with their teens.

Key findings from our research on teens and pornography:

  • How old are kids when they first see pornography? It's probably younger than you think.

    Most of the teens in our survey (73%) reported that they have seen online pornography. Of those who said they have seen it, 54% reported that they saw it by age 13, including the 15% surveyed who saw pornography for the first time before they turned 11.

  • How often do teens watch pornography? Many are viewing it regularly, with some groups watching more than others.

    Some teens in our survey reported that they came across pornography only accidentally (29%), while others intentionally sought it out.
    Nearly half (44%) of those surveyed said that they had ever watched pornography intentionally. Of those teens, 71% indicated that they had consumed pornography in the past week.

    Cis boy respondents (52%) were much more likely to report that they consume pornography intentionally than cis girls (36%) were. (Cis refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned at birth.) Rates of intentional pornography consumption were also higher among respondents who are LGBTQ+ (66%). These findings suggest that pornography may play a larger role in sexual exploration for LGBTQ+ teens than for other teens.

  • What are teens learning from pornography? It may shape how they understand and view sex and sexual relationships.

    Many teens are getting lessons about what sexual relationships look like from the pornography they watch.

    Just under half (45%) of teen respondents agreed that online pornography gives helpful information about sex. A smaller share (27%) agreed that sex in online pornography accurately shows the way most people have sex.

  • How does watching pornography make teens feel? It's complicated.

    The majority of the teens who reported in this survey that they had seen pornography said they feel "OK" about the amount of pornography they watch (67%). Still, half (50%) reported feeling guilty or ashamed after watching pornography. In addition, many teens of color across different racial and ethnic groups in our survey experienced negative feelings because of stereotypes encountered in pornography.

It's time for parents and caregivers to have conversations about pornography with their teens and tweens.

Some adults may find the topics covered in this research alarming, and with good reason. While exploration and curiosity about sex and sexual relationships are developmentally appropriate for teens, pornography can set unrealistic expectations and poor models about what sexual experiences can look like.

Research has suggested that exposure to pornography at a young age may be related to poor mental health, sexism and objectification, increased sexual aggression, interpersonal relationship problems, and other negative outcomes. Among other risks, when children view pornography that portrays abusive and misogynistic acts, they may come to view such behavior as normal and acceptable. And in our survey, a majority of teens who had seen pornography reported they had been exposed to violent or aggressive forms of pornography.

Pornography is another tough topic to add to the list of subjects that parents and trusted adults must tackle with their kids. We need to consider a conversation about pornography the same way we think of conversations about sex, relationships, healthy social media habits, drug and alcohol use, and other sensitive topics.

Here's why it's important for parents and caregivers to talk with kids about pornography.

Teen respondents to our survey were far more likely to say they had learned a lot about sex from a parent, caregiver, or trusted adults (47%) than from pornography (27%). Conversations are an opportunity to help them find better options for exploring sex and sexuality.

While these conversations can be awkward for kids and uncomfortable for parents and caregivers, the good news is they are incredibly worth it. While less than half (43%) of the teens in our research reported they've had conversations about pornography with a trusted adult, most who had these conversations said it encouraged them to find other ways to explore their sexuality besides pornography.

The tech industry can do more to limit kids' exposure to pornography online.

Common Sense works to provide reliable, independent data on the impact of media and tech use on kids' physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development. To coincide with this research, we are working with Professor Emily Rothman at Boston University to give trusted adults everywhere the questions and guidance they need to have these conversations with both young kids and teens.

While these conversations are vitally important, we can't ignore that pornography isn't appropriate for kids. Caregivers should also work to avoid the chance of kids encountering it—purposefully or accidentally—by taking steps to safeguard devices and browsers.

But there is only so much parents can do. The biggest players in the digital world must start putting the right protections in place to keep pornography away from the eyes of those too young to engage with it, and to provide better tools to minimize the accidental exposures that many teens report.

As Professor Rothman says, "We need to do more to prevent kids from viewing sexually explicit media. And because no matter what we do, some of them will see it anyway, we also need to provide information and education to all youth about the fact that pornography is not the best way for kids to learn about sex."

Educating kids and teens to be discerning about all content they see online is an important aspect of digital literacy, and that's certainly true with pornography. When it comes to learning about sexuality, kids and teens need to see healthy, realistic, and age-appropriate storylines about relationships, attraction, and sex. Parents, educators, and industry leaders can help guide kids to higher-quality content and put the right protections in place to allow kids to explore the digital world safely.

Michael Robb, PhD, former head of research at Common Sense, is a co-author of this report and contributed to this article.

Supreet Mann

Supreet Mann is a research manager at Common Sense. She holds a PhD in communication and a master's degree in child development from the University of California, Davis. Her research uses a developmental lens to consider the role of social influences on children's socio-emotional outcomes, including prosocial behavior, risk-taking, and learning. In addition to presenting her work at national and international conferences, Supreet has published her work in a variety of academic journals, including Journal of Children and Media, Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, and Journal of Child and Family Studies.