Children are stumbling across pornography online around age 12, on average. And between ages 13 and 17, nearly three-quarters have watched pornography online. At age 13, more than half have done so.

That’s according to a nationally representative survey of teens in that age bracket conducted by Common Sense Media. In the poll, more than 1 in 7 teens reported they first saw pornography by age 10.

Additionally, while some of the teens say they first saw the pornography accidentally, “a significant number of teens said they were viewing online pornography intentionally on a regular basis,” the report on the survey, released this week, said.

“Most parents probably think, ‘Well, that’s not my kid.’ But the numbers are overwhelming, so it probably is your kid,” Common Sense Media founder and CEO Jim Steyer told CNN. “This is an incredibly important public health and sexual health issue that’s literally being buried by parents, by educators and by all of us.”

In a letter at the front of the report, Steyer said that “it’s time for us to talk about pornography. We need to consider conversations with teens about pornography the same way we think of conversations about sex, social media, drug and alcohol use and more.”

Among other findings in the “Teens and Pornography” report:

  • Of those polled, 52% said they’d seen violent and/or aggressive pornography, “including media that depicts what appears to be rape, choking or someone in pain.”
  • Just over 4 in 10 of the teens said they had discussed pornography with a trusted adult. In the case of those who had such discussions, more than half said doing so led them to think about other ways than porn to explore sexuality and sex.
  • Seventy-one percent who said they’d deliberately watched pornography said they’d viewed it within the last week.
  • Not quite half felt that online pornography provides “helpful information about sex,” though just 27% believe the depictions of sex are accurate.
  • Forty-one percent said they’d seen pornography during the school day.
  • More than half of cis boys said they had deliberately watched pornography, compared to just over a third of cis girls. (Cis refers to someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex assigned to them at birth).
  • Rates of intentional pornography consumption were higher among respondents who said they are LGBTQ. Two-thirds of them said they deliberately consumed pornography.
  • Half of teens describe feeling guilty or ashamed after viewing online pornography.

In the survey, just under a third of teens said that content filters or parental controls are used in their homes to screen what they can watch, while a separate 15% said such filters have been used in the past, though not currently. Among children 13 and 14, 42% said filters were being used, compared to fewer than a quarter for teens age 15-17.

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There has not been much research on the effects pornography can have on adolescents, the report said, noting “there certainly isn’t enough research to suggest that the potential benefits of viewing pornography outweigh the potential harms. ...”

The report says research indicates that increased sexual aggression, anxiety and depression, relationship problems and dangerous sexual behaviors are among the challenges that might be associated with pornography use.

Problem for adults, too?

While the report looked at pornography use among adolescents, other research shows that even among adults, pornography use can create problems.

A 2021 report by the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University found that while pornography use has become common in committed relationships, it creates conflict for about 1 in 5 couples. As the Deseret News reported, “A quarter of men report hiding their pornography use from their partner, while a third of women said they worry about how pornography impacts their intimacy with their partner.”

“You’ve got this behavior almost all couples are dealing with in some form,” said report lead author Brian J. Willoughby, professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and research fellow at The Wheatley Institute, when “The Porn Gap” findings were released. “We have something that most couples should be talking about, but they’re not. It’s something that’s clearly having an influence for a lot of couples on what their relationship is.”

According to that report, about a third of women worried their partner was more attracted to pornography than to them and was thinking about it during sex. A similar share of women worried they were being lied to about their partner’s pornography use.

“Men consistently overestimate how much women view pornography — and women consistently underestimate, by about half, how much men do,” the article said.

Talk about it

The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds offers some tips for talking with adolescents about online pornography — with a reminder that “you’ll need to adjust your tone and your attitude based on your child’s developmental stage and your personal belief system.” Among the suggestions from Dr. Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and former co-director of the Clay Center:

No shaming. “If your child feels ashamed of his or her own curiosity and drives, then you are unlikely to hear from your child when there’s real trouble,” he wrote.

Talk about the issue early — and keep computers in a public area when kids are younger. The center blog recommends saying something along the lines of, “If you come upon a site that feels inappropriate, please tell me.” That usually does the trick, Schlozman said.

If a child stumbles on “tawdry material,” address the issue. The center has some specific tips for what the conversation might sound like.

With older kids, pay attention for signs of unhealthy internet use like skipping meals, staying up late and locking the door. If you see them, talk about it.

The center notes that outright prohibition generally doesn’t work and could promote greater temptation. “This is not to say that we as parents don’t have rules. We just need to elaborate on why we don’t want pornography to be viewed by our teens and engage in open discussion,” wrote Schlozman.