The Digital Danger Zone
Our children live in an increasingly digital world that serves as both a gateway to knowledge and innovation and also a portal to insidious material and harmful ideas.
This ‘digital danger zone’ threatens to disconnect children from their parents and education as they are presented with outside ideas without context or critical thought – particularly material surrounding sexuality and consent. When we think about the ‘dangers of pornography’ we must reflect on the responsibility of educators and parents to create a sexual education dynamic that does not reflect the misleading, incomplete and flawed information they are exposed to online . The dangers of pornography on all facets of a child’s development must be understood in order to appropriately equip our children with the tools they need to navigate this minefield.
- A recent Australian survey of 15-19-year-old girls revealed that 51% of participants believed that girls feel social pressure to share naked images of themselves online 
- 75% of senior secondary students have been accidentally exposed to pornographic websites.
- In Australia, 38% of males who are senior secondary students have reported deliberately accessing pornographic sites compared to 2% of girls 
- A recent Australian study confirmed that the age that children are first viewing pornography is continuing to decrease – 13 years old for males and 16 years old for females 
- The highest group of underage consumers of pornographic material is boys aged 14-17 
Dangers of Pornography
Pornography is material that is designed for adults to view. Regardless of your moral opinion on whether or not it should exist, it exists in digital formats and is easily found-either deliberately or accidentally. It’s not a question of ‘if’ your child will be exposed to pornography but ‘when’. The dangers of online pornography can take the form of:
- Misleading messages about gender stereotypes
- Misleading messages about sexual practices
- Children viewing material outside of their maturity levels
The issue with children and teenagers viewing this material is that it deals with issues and concepts that they are not yet cognitively able to process and deal with. The types of films available (for the most part) feature actors playing roles to fulfil the desires of a certain audience demographic. Children are not mature enough to understand this dynamic and thus can become easily confused about things like sex, gender and consent.
Pornography can represent sex as a ‘performance’  instead of a physical expression of intimacy between consenting adults. As parents, we want our children’s relationships to be respectful and loving – an aspect that is definitively not represented in pornography . The development of adult relationships and sexual identities may become inhibited and warped when children are exposed to pornography.
Some pornography has dangerous, graphic, violent or exploitative content. For a young mind and developing body, a link can be formed between what they are viewing on screen and what they expect actual sexual relations to be like. The gendered roles in pornography can reinforce the kind of damaging stereotypes about gender, dominance and raunch culture  noted by forensic psychologist Miranda Horvath – “Pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex, beliefs that women are sex objects, more frequent thoughts about sex, and children and young people who view pornography tend to hold less progressive gender role attitudes.”
#1 The Dangers of Pornography – Misleading Messages About Gender Stereotypes
For the most part, males in porn are represented as being aggressive, controlling and dominant – with females acting in a subservient role. For impressionable young viewers, a dynamic is formed here that promotes unhealthy ideas about physical and emotional relationships .
Aggression In Pornography
- 88% of porn scenes (in this study) represented physical aggression 
- 94% of this aggression was directed at the females on screen 
If we are to extrapolate on information like this and a variety of studies that encapsulate anecdotal research, we may form links between frequent viewing of these types of films and the levels of sexually coercive and violent behaviour we see towards women . Culturally, this pervasive attitude of sexual dominance and aggression towards women as depicted in pornography may contribute to the social crises of sexism and pressure that are levelled against girls. When girls are objectified and taught, via pornography and expectations surrounding sex, that they must be passive and subservient, their mental health and sexual development may be significantly impacted .
#2 The Dangers of Pornography – Misleading Messages About Sexual Practices
It’s a normal part of maturation that our children will eventually become sexually active adults. Some may reach this milestone sooner than others but our goal should be to help ensure our children are well-informed, able to understand consent and act in ways that are safe and that align with their personal values.
One of the dangers of pornography is that it involves the representation of themes and social ideas that directly contradict the kinds of experiences we would wish for our children. Pornography does not consistently promote the ideas of safe, consensual or meaningful sex . In fact, only 3% of heterosexual encounters in online pornography involve the use of a condom.
The female body on screen has long been a source of consternation and angst and nowhere is that more prevalent than in pornography. Very thin bodies that have been surgically enhanced render these women merely props to be exploited– the ultimate in objectification. This series of depictions of unrealistic body standards  links to the sexual objectification previously discussed that can undermine the body confidence of the underage female. Young teenage girls do not look like these women and with that realisation can come shame, anxiety, self-disgust and the lowering of self-esteem .
It is this very mindset that can be linked to the rise of ‘sexting’ as a particularly insidious phenomenon . A recent survey  of girls between the ages of 15 to 19 revealed that 51% have felt social pressure to share compromising images of themselves online. This pressure may have come from boyfriends, social groups or strangers; but it all stems from a culture that promotes raunchy culture  and porn as the norm.
#3 The Dangers of Pornography – Maturity Levels
The adolescent brain has not matured sufficiently (socially, cognitively or emotionally) to understand and process pornographic depictions. Pornography is given an 18+ rating as it can have long-lasting behavioural and emotional impacts on the viewer. However, children can (and will) view 18+ material or have it shown to them by others. The question becomes then – what are parents to do about it?
Strategies and Tips for Parents
Your child’s school may offer a sex education program. Don’t let that be the only way that your children access this important information. You can become an active participant in their sexual education by viewing education resources along the lines of elements discussed in this article. eSafety  and AIFS  discuss issues to do with themes like consent and aggression. Your children may feel uncomfortable watching these videos with you but this is an important step to begin a dialogue. Answer any questions they have openly and respectfully.
Teach your children to develop a sense of critical and media literacy. The images that we see on our screens have been selected, edited and manipulated for specific purposes – usually to sell or to make us feel a certain way. Talk with your children about gender representation across a range of media forms and encourage them to ask questions.
Be aware of your options in terms of Internet filtering and monitoring. Talk to your children about blocking pop-ups and advertisements. For younger children consider restricting device usage to common areas in the home and set appropriate time limits. Be open and honest with your children about what you are doing and why you are doing it – there should be transparency when it comes to Internet usage. Open communication will lead to your children being “better able to make informed decisions about the sexual content they will be exposed to, and being aware of what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour” .
Guide your child through what to do if they feel uncomfortable. Workshop scenarios and strategies with your child that help them remove themselves from situations where they feel pressured into viewing inappropriate content. Many parents have embraced the X-Plan (here is a link to the original idea, as picked up by worldwide media) as a simple way to help their children leave an uncomfortable situation. X-PLAN is a code wherein a child can simply text the character ‘X’ to their parent who will then come to pick them up from wherever they are, no questions asked. It’s an easy way for children to remove themselves from a situation where they feel uncomfortable without risking the social awkwardness of having someone overhear them make a phone call.
Discuss the virtue of going your own way. The nature of our media is such that we live in an overtly sexual, objectifying society. Talk with your child about how that can impact on the way they and their friends behave and present themselves and that pornography viewing may well seem like something all the ‘cool kids’ are doing. Acknowledge that it’s okay to feel left out sometimes and that just because everyone else seems to be doing something does not mean they are “uncool” and that there is a strength in standing up for what you believe in.
Protect your own home experiences. Children cannot unsee what they have seen. Some initial pornography viewing takes place with their friends or outside your home. Older siblings are also known to share sexual content. While you cannot control everyone’s device – be vigilant about what and how your child is exposed to pornography and reassure them that you will be there for them if they come across something disturbing and share it with you.
- Online Pornography – Resources For Parents
- Media Policy Project Blog – The Digital Environment Is Fundamental To Today’s Sex Education
- It’s Time We Talked – For Young People – Pornography
- It’s Time We Talked – For Parents – Pornography
- Children and Young People’s Exposure to Pornography (2016)
- Ask Annalisa – Should My Friend Block Her 12 Year Old’s Access To Porn? (2018)
- Burton, L and Roberts, J. (2012) “The Impression That You Get – A Resource Guide” ATOM (Australian Teachers of Media)
- Lim, M et al. (2017) “Young Australians’ Use of Pornography and Associations With Sexual Risk Behaviours” (Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health)
- American Psychological Association – Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). “Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls”