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According to a government report called The Sexualisation of Children, (published in February 2010), most young people will find themselves exposed to online porn at some stage. The average teen spends one hundred minutes a week surfing for porn, according to research by cyberSentinel.co.uk. Knowing this, it can help to get the facts, so that you can talk to your child and encourage a healthy and balanced attitude to sex and relationships.
"Finding porn online is so easy, and it's not always deliberate," says psychologist Corinne Sweet, an expert on pornography, relationships and addiction. "Young people are naturally curious. If they see a pop-up window they might click on it and be led to porn, or be sent links to it in junk mail.". Mobile phones are increasingly likely to provide access to pornography now, and have become the most common medium in the UK.
The Home Office report adds that online porn is increasingly dominated by themes of aggression, power and control, and many parents are naturally worried about the messages this might send to their children. Most young people in the UK now have access to the Internet. Through our research for Parentchannel.tv, we learned that more than half (57%) of young people aged 9-19 have already seen internet pornographic images.
"Sometimes it's a dare to look at it," says Corinne Sweet. "But they can see extremely violent images and even end up suffering post-trauma shock." Before internet access became commonplace, the average age that boys first saw porn was 11. That is now much lower, according to the Sexualisation of Children report. It adds that one in four young people had received pornographic junk mail or instant messages, and one in eight had visited violent pornographic websites.
Some people claim there's no difference between sexual images on the net and looking at soft porn magazines - which have been around for generations. Sex addiction expert Paula Hall says that watching fast-moving sexual images online "can lead to a trance-like state and can certainly become addictive - in that sense paper porn is safer than online porn. It's important for young people to understand that porn is like junk food or chocolate - not ultimately very satisfying," She adds, "Porn is just there to stimulate and arouse, while real sex is quite different. It leads to unrealistic and exaggerated expectations of sex, body image and relationships."
Research carried out worldwide shows that people who grow up on a diet of porn have more difficulty forming relationships, says Corinne Sweet. "It doesn't teach you about emotions and love, and it desensitises young people to violence and rape. Men and women are just seen as sex objects and body parts". Another study, called EU Kids Online, found boys appeared more likely than girls to seek out offensive or violent content, to access pornographic content or be sent links to porn websites.
Mum Karen walked in on her son masturbating to porn on his computer. "I apologised and went out. I know we ought to talk about what he was looking at, but it’s been weeks now and I'm too embarrassed to mention it. I will, but I just wish I'd chatted to him soon after."
"I knew my son Jake was looking at porn," says mum Lianne. "He did it on the family computer and occasionally forgot to wipe the history of sites he’d been on. At first I turned a blind eye because I didn't know what else to do. Then I noticed the stuff he was looking at was getting more extreme and nasty". After finding image of rape, Lianne confronted her son. "We had a massive row and haven't spoken about it since. I took the computer away, but I’m sure he still sees it at friends’ houses. I really regret shouting".
"Remember that your child could access porn elsewhere, not at home," adds Corinne Sweet. "They could be at a sleepover, where there is an older brother or sister who shows it to them. Young people are naturally curious and are constantly sharing things they've seen online, pornographic or not. I've also heard about situations where adults in the family have been looking at porn and accidentally left the link open on their screen." Be aware that the problem isn't confined to computer use, and also that children may be looking at pornography and hiding the evidence.
The harmful effects of pornography can be seen in girls as well as boys. Many teenage girls have said that they felt they should imitate pornographic scenes they had seen on the web, and a growing number of girls felt pressured into stripping on webcams for their boyfriends. These images were then sometimes circulated via mobile phone or online.
"I picked up my son's phone and was horrified to see a very revealing shot of his best friend's girlfriend as his screensaver," says 44-year-old mum Becky. "He was very embarrassed, and admitted he knew it was wrong. I was upset that his friend had circulated the image and that my son had put it on there in the first place. The good thing is that we did talk about it, and about porn generally, and I hope he now sees it differently".
Paula Hall, Relate psychotherapist, on what to do if you are concerned about your child watching porn: