Health

How much online porn do children see unintentionally? Less of it than 5 years ago

You might think that with all the time spent online and swiping at smartphones, young people would be exposed to more unwanted explicit material than ever.

But, it turns out, that’s not the case.

A new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, examined two types of online risks: unwanted exposure to sexual images or videos online, whereby young people encountered the content without intentionally seeking it, and unwanted online solicitations, such as being asked by someone else online to share explicit images.

Risk seems to be decreasing

Having summarized data about over 50,000 youth aged 9-17 from existing studies released between 1990 and 2016, the researchers found that, on average, one in five youth have seen unwanted sexual material online and one in nine have received online solicitations.

But while those numbers are disturbing, the risks have actually decreased. In other words, we’re getting better at keeping kids safe online.

“We found that the prevalence of online risks has decreased over time,” says Sheri Madigan, one of the study’s authors, and the Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development.

A 2014 study titled “Basically… porn is everywhere” found the research to that point varied, with between four and 66 per cent of children and youth reporting unwanted exposure online. The upper end in that study is markedly higher than the more recent findings.

Youngsters are spending less time searching Google and more time on Snapchat. This means any explicit content they’re exposed to may come from friends. (Martha Irvine/Associated Press)

According to Matthew Johnson, the director of education for MediaSmarts, the biggest difference over the past five years or so is the move from a primarily browser-based way of using the internet to one that’s primarily app-based. In other words, less Google searching, and more Snapchatting.

This, he says, “along with improvements by search engines in filtering out inappropriate results, has led to less exposure to professional pornography, but more exposure to sexual content from peers.”

“One possibility for this finding is that parents have become more digitally savvy and aware of online risks,” explains Madigan. “Parents have started to use spam filters, for example, which can block out unwanted content.  Parental controls on apps such as Netflix are also being applied, so that children only view age-appropriate content.”

Knowing how it works not the same as understanding it

It wasn’t that long ago that the popular premise was that kids knew more about the digital world than their parents.

Concepts such as that of the “digital native” made the assumption that the generation born into the digital world had a better innate understanding of it, and that parents didn’t understand, let alone use, platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat.

But as Johnson notes, “just because you grew up with these tools and use them on a daily basis, doesn’t mean you really understand them in a way that we would consider to be digitally literate.”

He explains that while it is beneficial for parents to have a certain familiarity with digital technology in general, and in the particular platforms their kids are using, “past that what matters is not how much they use technology, but how much they understand it.”

Madigan agrees. She says that while implementing controls and filters may be helpful, talking to kids about what they view online, how they conduct themselves online, how they treat others online, and what they share online, is also critical.  

Certainly, the more digitally savvy parents become, the better equipped they are to have those conversations … but unfortunately, many still aren’t.

How to talk to kids about online behaviour

According to Madigan, only about 40 per cent of parents are regularly talking to their kids about their online behavior, which is part of the reason the rates of unwanted exposure to explicit content, and unwanted solicitations, are still so high.

So, what should parents be doing? In a blog post on The Conversation, Madigan and her collaborators, Gina Dimitropoulos and Nina Anderson, offer advice for safeguarding kids online. In addition to having discussions about children’s digital experiences early and often, they recommend setting boundaries tailored to the child’s development and maturity.

The researchers’ other advice: Be understanding.

“If they see something that makes them uncomfortable, they may embarrassed or distressed, which may make them reluctant to talk about it.”

Johnson echoes that sentiment. He says that, while an understanding of the ways that digital platforms influence how we communicate is certainly helpful, what’s really valuable are “classic parenting skills of being able to support our kids and guide them in dealing with conflicts and relationships.”