Pornography and other online safety issues

Written by: Stephanie Enson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The impact that exposure to pornography has on the lives of young people is becoming alarmingly clear – and it is increasingly becoming an issue for primary-age pupils. Stephanie Enson explores the problems and discusses preventative strategies

In today’s digital world we are increasingly witnessing younger aged children being inadvertently exposed to highly sexualised, overtly harmful imagery and information while online.

With 24-hour availability and no watershed, almost 90 per cent of 8 to 17-year-olds now have easy access to the internet (Enson, 2017). It is suggested that the internet acts as a kind of “super peer”, replacing messages from parents or educators and gaining credibility in the minds of young people by assuming an authority of “coolness” (Papadopoulos, 2010).

While offering children and young people a portal to access information and get answers to questions they may feel uncomfortable about asking parents, teachers or supporting adults, the internet can correspondingly expose them to sexualised imagery and messages that they are developmentally not yet ready to receive – having consequentially detrimental effects on their psyche.

One in three children aged five to 15 years now have their own tablet computer, often offering easy access to unrestricted material for many. The use of tablets has tripled among this age range since 2012 (to 42 per cent from 14 per cent), and one quarter (28 per cent) of infants aged three and four now use a tablet computer at home according to 2013 data from Ofcom.

Furthermore, 91 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds now have a mobile phone according to 2016 data from Ofcom. While these devices (potentially) allow parents closer monitoring of their children’s whereabouts, they also provide children easy access to all kinds of online content, regardless of its appropriateness.

There has also been a staggering increase in mobile advertisement in recent years – a 95 per cent rise in 2015 alone (according to 2017 data from Zenith Media). This has resulted in a prolific increase of unrequested, inappropriate pornographic imagery (in the form of pop-ups) now invading young children’s mobiles 24/7.

The risks

The dangers many children currently face online from the wide range of technology devices they engage with – such as mobile phones, text messaging, emails, digital cameras, videos, web-cams, websites and blogs – has become a major concern for parents and care-givers who struggle to keep their children safe in the technological age.

Government and educators recognise that competencies in digital literacy and emotional resilience-building have become important curriculum requirements in order to prepare children to meet the challenges of this digital age (Children’s Commissioner, 2017; House of Lords, 2017).

Additionally, the government is currently introducing an Internet Safety Strategy – a first for Europe – as part of its manifesto commitment aiming to “make Britain the safest place in the world to be online” (UK Parliament, 2017).
Sexting – the sending of, often unsolicited, sexually explicit messages or images via mobile phones – continues to rise. Young girls in particular report being under increasing pressure to send highly sexualised images of themselves in order to either acquire or keep a boyfriend while young boys feel under increasing pressure to display their bodies in hyper-masculinist ways (Papadopoulos, 2010).

Sexting can also leave a young person open to criminal prosecution – in 2016, the NSPCC stated that more than 2,000 children were among those reported to police for indecent images offences over the previous three years (NSPCC, 2016).

Pornography and the law

It is worth reviewing the law at this point. In accordance with Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, it is illegal for a person under-18 to send explicit images or films of themselves, or of another young person. Such activity amounts to producing and distributing child abuse images and runs the risks of prosecution (even if the picture is taken and shared with the subject’s permission).

Cyber-bullying via social media

Since 2016, an estimated 23 per cent of eight to 11-year-olds and 72 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds now possess a social media profile, according to Ofcom data from 2016. While social media sites allow children to create online identities and provide a portal for entertainment and communication, they potentially hold significant negative consequences for inexperienced users. The number of children and young people now experiencing online bullying on social media sites has increased by 88 per cent in five years according to the NSPCC in 2016, who are calling for mandatory social media codes of practice to come into place.

Online pornography

It has been estimated that as much as 30 per cent of all data transferred across the internet is porn, which means porn sites now get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined (Huffington Post, 2013). This new generation of young people is the first to be dealing with such easy to access pornography, effectively by the click of a button on a device that fits into a pocket – the SmartPhone.

Pornography shapes young people’s sexual knowledge but does so by portraying sex in unrealistic ways and, whether they want to or not, the majority of teens are getting some of their sex education from porn.

While we must remember that sexual curiosity is a normal feature of childhood, we must also remember that as care-givers and educators we have a duty to help young people acquire the skills and awareness to enable them to both deal with online sexual content safely as well as support them in building non-exploitative representations of gender and sexuality.

Statistics – under-10s

While statistics have shown that over the last few years the average age of first exposure to porn is 11-years-old (Randel & Sanchez, 2016), more recent research findings by security technology company “Bitdefender” are now showing that children are accessing hardcore porn sites earlier than ever, with one in 10 visitors to graphic porn websites being under the age of 10 years. Bitdefender has also reported that under-10-year-olds now account for 22 per cent of online video porn consumption among the under-18 age (group) (Munteanu, 2016).

In 2016, Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC (quoted in: Children’s Commissioner, 2016) said: “A generation of children are in danger of being stripped of their childhoods at a young age by stumbling across extreme and violent porn online.”


If we are to help children stay safe we must teach them how to set effective personal boundaries as well as build internal emotional resistance to negative personal imagery they may encounter. We must also provide them with the tools to build healthy personal sexuality.

This will necessitate all schools delivering relevant, up-to-date, RSE and PSHE curriculum fit for the 21st century. All children should be taught media literacy skills to enable them to become internet savvy users from a young age.
In addition, schools, parents and care-givers should utilise proactive online safety measures to support children in remaining safe (as far as possible) when online. Finally, as young people’s advocates, we must constantly question our own internal beliefs and social constructs whenever we are engaging with young people.

Recommendations for primary schools

In line with best practice and impending new statutory requirements for RSE in secondary schools and relationships education in primary schools from September 2019, the following relationships module work for primary schools is recommended

  • Modules on personal boundary setting (on and off-line) for all pupils, introduced across the curriculum and throughout the school environment.
  • Exploring consent modules – consistently explored across the curriculum and throughout the school environment.
  • Gender awareness training and teaching modules – with specific reference to the influence the media plays on body image and personal identity. Counteractive measures should be offered.
  • Digital literacy modules (with age-appropriate material) should be made a compulsory part of the national curriculum for children from the age of five.
  • Modules on gender equality, sexualisation and sexist/sexual bullying should be developed as part of a social and emotional aspects of learning programme for primary schools (SEAL).

Health concerns – referring on

Young children may present with a wide variety of psychological, emotional and/or physical issues (within school and/or home setting) as a direct result of exposure to sexualised imagery and messages that they are developmentally not ready to receive. These might include:

  • Refusal to attend school.
  • Disruptive behaviour within school/home.
  • Disruptive sleep patterns.
  • General anxiety.
  • Sexualised language or behaviour towards peers.

Because of the complex nature such exposure may have on a young child’s psyche (while holding an awareness that such symptoms may also be part of a wider paradigm of concern—i.e. physical and/or sexual abuse), and in line with child protection protocols, it is always wise to seek early input from expert health services such as school nursing services for further support and guidance. 

  • Stephanie Enson is a young people’s sexual health and relationships practitioner. She is a former school nurse and has more than 20 years’ experience working in the children’s health arena. She can be contacted for further advice and support via stephanie_enson@

References and reading

  • Children’s Commissioner, 2016, Children may become ‘desensitised’ to damaging impact of online porn:
  • Children’s Commissioner, 2017, Growing Up Digital: A report of the growing up digital taskforce:
  • Internet Safety Strategy:Written statement, UK Parliament, October 2017:
  • Enson, 2017, Evaluating the impact of hyper-sexualisation on the lives of young people, British Journal of School Nursing: July/August 2017 (Vol 12 No 6):
  • Huffington Post (2013). Porn Sites Get More Visitors Each Month Than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter Combined:
  • Munteanu, 2016, One in 10 visitors of porn sites is under 10-years-old, Bitdefender:
  • NSPCC, 2016. Sexting may be a factor in the rise of children and young people involved in investigations:
  • Papadopoulus, 2010, Sexualisation of Young People Review (Home Office):
  • Randel & Sanchez, 2016, Parenting in the Digital Age of Pornography, Huffington Post:
  • House of Lords, 2017, Growing Up With The Internet. House of Lords Select Committee on Communications:

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