Additional Resources

Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material

Many parents believe that their children have not seen inappropriate content online, but kids are saying something very different. The reality is that children as young as eight and nine years of age can easily come across sexual content on the Internet – and most notably graphic adult pornography. Although most (if not all) of this type of material is legal, it is far from harmless to children and teens who view it.


Most often children are accidentally exposed to explicit material by incorrectly typing in a web address or words into a search engine and they unexpectedly find they are on a site they did not intend to visit. Nonetheless, research suggests that early exposure to sexually graphic material is likely to have a negative influence and a potentially harmful impact on children.1

What does the research tell us?

In the past, people thought that because children didn’t understand sexually graphic information, they weren’t affected by it. Today, we know that while children do not have the emotional maturity, experience or knowledge to understand sexual content, they may unconsciously store the experience in their brains and try to make sense of what they have seen. It can be quite stressful and children may find ways to act it out to try to make sense of it. Impact can vary depending on the child, the age of the child, the content viewed and the circumstances around how it was viewed.

Exposure to sexually explicit material may:
  • Prematurely sexualize a child.
  • Incite a child to experiment with sexually explicit behaviour to make sense of it.
  • Lead a child to normalize and become desensitized to high risk behaviour.
  • Shape a child’s expectations in relationships.
  • Shape a child’s expectations of physical appearances and certain sexual acts.
  • Blur boundaries and increase a child’s risk of victimization.
  • Increase a child’s health risks (i.e. sexually transmitted infections, sexual exploitation, etc.).
  • Increase a child’s risk of problematic sexual behaviour against other children in an effort to experiment.
  • Interfere with a child’s healthy sexual development.

There are signs you can watch out for that may indicate your child is experiencing distress from having viewed sexually explicit material online:

  • There are noticeable changes in your child’s typical behaviour patterns. They seem easily agitated, overly sensitive and emotional.
  • Your child mentions the image they saw is interfering with their other thoughts. It seems to keep “popping” into their head.
  • Your child begins to experience difficulty sleeping.
  • Your child is spending more or less time online than usual.

If you notice changes in your child’s behaviour:

  • Let your child know that you notice they seem out of sorts. Ask if everything is okay, or if you can help in any way.
  • Be emotionally available and willing to listen to your child. When a child goes through a stressful experience, it is helpful for them to just have someone who cares about them to talk to without fear of judgment.
  • If your child does not want to talk, let them know you are available if they need you.
  • If changes in behaviour persist, consult with your family doctor.

We cannot keep children shielded within a bubble, nor would we want to. What is important is to strike a balance between empowering children and protecting them.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Set limits on your child’s use of devices and what they are allowed to watch (e.g. Internet, television and video games).
  • Supervise your child when they are online.
  • Set up parental controls and use filtering software.
  • For younger children, use child safe visual search engines and apps (e.g., Kiddle).

Tweens and Teens

It’s normal for tweens and teens to be sexually curious, and in fact seek out explicit material. Yet, adolescents who are seeking information about sexuality and relationships do not have the experience or knowledge to compare to some of the graphic material they come across. The result is that the material can end up being a teaching tool influencing their development of attitudes and beliefs about relationships, sex or sexuality.

  • Pornography is not reality. It creates confusing expectations, attitudes and beliefs about what to expect in a healthy sexual interaction.
  • Pornography makes sexual violence seem okay, that being aggressive will get you what you want and that “no” means “yes.”
  • Pornography reinforces gender stereotypes such as guys call all the shots and girls are meant to be used for a sexual purpose.
  • It portrays people as objects; a thing to be used and not as a person.

Parental guidance is critical to influencing beliefs and shaping values around developing healthy and fulfilling relationships, so when talking about pornography it’s important to:

  • Talk openly about the hidden negative messages in media, music, fashion and advertising (e.g. glorification of violence, sexual harm, power and control, gender stereotypes).
  • Provide a standard of measure for healthy relationships and healthy sexuality that your child can compare to when trying to make sense of mass media messages.
  • Foster a positive body image.
  • Foster positive gender identities.
  • Discuss with your child:
    • The different types of relationships (e.g. acquaintance, intimate, sexual, etc.)
    • The difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships
    • The difference between respecting and breaking personal boundaries
    • The rights and responsibilities associated with sexual behaviour
    • The health risks associated with sexual activity
    • The importance of self-worth and dignity

1 Alexy, E., et al (2009). “Pornography Use as a Risk Marker for an Aggressive Pattern of Behavior Among Sexually Reactive Children and Adolescents.” Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 14(6), pp.442-453; Svedin, et al (2011). “Frequent users of pornography. A population based epidemiological study of Swedish male adolescents.” Journal of Adolescence, 34(4), pp.779-788

The tips and other information provided herein is intended as general information only, not as advice. Readers should assess all information in light of their own circumstances, the age and maturity level of the child(ren) they wish to protect and any other relevant factors.