Most American teens are watching porn, says disturbing report

Anybody who cares about the healthy sexual and character development of children should read the report, Teens and Pornography issued earlier this year by the organization Common Sense Media.

The report was based on a representative national survey of 1,300 teenagers ages 13 to 17. Some of its troubling findings:

  • 73 percent of the respondents (75 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls) said they had watched online pornography. The average age they started was 12. Many began younger.
  • Seven in 10 who admitted they had watched porn intentionally said they had done so in the past week.
  • Four in 10 said they had watched pornography, including nudity and sexual acts, during the school day. Almost half said they had done so on school-owned devices.
  • Of those who watched the past week, 80 percent said they had seen “what appears to be rape, choking, or someone in pain.”

Common Sense Media founder and CEO James Steyer, in his introduction to the Teens and Pornography report, said the findings should be a wake-up call to parents and other caregivers: “We need to consider conversations with teens about pornography the same way we think of conversations about sex, social media, drug and alcohol use, and more.”

The finding that teens said they had viewed “what appears to be rape, choking, or someone in pain” won’t surprise anyone who has read the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines, a Wheelock College sociology and women's studies professor. In more than two decades of speaking and writing about pornography, Dines finds that most women and some men—including parents—have no clue how violent and misogynist hard-core online pornography has become.

A 2007 content analysis, "Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography," examined 50 of the most-rented internet videos. It found an average of 12 abusive acts inflicted on female performers per scene. Gang rape was common. The number of sexual partners ranged from one to nineteen.

Until now, any child in America has been able to access the most extreme pornography by simply answering “yes” to the question, “Are you 18?” This is a public health problem that cries out for a public policy solution. Some states are currently considering age-verification laws that would protect minors.

The Common Sense Media survey found that 50 percent of the teenage respondents said they felt “guilty or ashamed” after they watched pornography. But half did not. Nearly 8 in 10 said viewing pornography was helping them “learn how to have sex.”

Teens and Pornography cites other recent research (e.g., Rothman et al., 2021; Wright et al., 2021) showing that youth consumption of pornography is associated with:

  • Increased sexual aggression
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Dangerous sexual behaviours such as choking someone during sex.


What can parents do?

If you have an elementary or preschool-aged child, I recommend Kristen Jenson’s gentle read-aloud picture books, Good Pictures Bad Pictures (ages 7-12) and Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr. (ages 3-6). Jenson (2014) points out that kids all over the world tragically begin viewing hard-core internet pornography before parents even consider talking to them about its dangers. Among the examples she cites:

  • One girl, for her eighth birthday, got a device which prompted her to do online searches for information about sex, which led her to the violent world of hard-core porn. She became withdrawn and depressed until her mother discovered her involvement.
  • A boy began watching internet porn at age six, continued heavy use through his teens, and ended up molesting his younger siblings.

Jenson’s Defend Young Minds website provides lots of tips and resources for parents and educators. In their character development and media literacy efforts, many middle schools, high schools, and colleges have made use of Fight the New Drug, a resource that provides links to studies on pornography's harmful effects.


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Porn blockers

Families and schools can use also use cutting-edge technology blockers to help protect children from pornography. These vary in effectiveness. One challenge is that sexually explicit content is no longer is limited to pornography websites. “Canopy” is software designed to work on smartphones, tablets, and computers and make it possible for homes and schools to experience porn-free use of the Internet.

CEO and Canopy creator Sean Clifford gives an example of what it can do: “If your kid receives a text message with a sexual image, Canopy can filter it out. If your kid tries to snap an inappropriate photo of himself or herself, Canopy will lock the image and send the parent a warning.”

Asked, “Why do you care so much about this?” Clifford responded:

“My wife and I have four children. We want to give them a chance to be kids. We want to provide them the space to develop a healthy understanding of intimacy. We would love for them to meet a great person, get married, and have happy marriages. All of those things become significantly harder in a world saturated by pornography.

“As someone who cares about families flourishing, I think pornography is one of the greatest challenges we have to confront. It causes a tremendous amount of suffering, warps imaginations, impedes healthy relationships, destroys marriages, and more. This is borne out by survey research, medical studies, and a thousand heart-breaking anecdotes I could share.”

Forming a child’s conscience

As I emphasize in How to Raise Kind Kids, parents and schools also need to develop children’s inner control: their conscience. That’s what they will carry within them into the wider world, where porn is now ubiquitous. We need to talk to them about why pornography is wrong, dangerous, and potentially addictive—and something never intentionally to let into their minds, hearts, and souls.

Besides sharing some of what research has found, here are some things we can consider saying:

  • Just as we should never put poison into our bodies, we should never put poison into our minds. Whatever we let into our minds affects our attitudes and the kind of person we are becoming. The bad things we see in pornography—like somebody hitting or choking a person—could possibly influence our own behaviour someday.
  • Even if we never copy these behaviours ourselves, just looking at them can change us in ways that are not good. After a while, they may not seem so bad because we have seen people in pornography do them many times. Bad behaviours should disturb us—it’s a sign that our conscience is working.
  • Sex is meant to express love. Violent pornography portrays sex as abusive and hurtful. The people who make porn pay the actors to pretend they enjoy being abused.
  • Pornography puts pictures in our mind that can be hard or even impossible to get rid of.
  • Whether or not porn is violent, it produces chemical changes in the brain that can make it addictive—like a powerful drug. It can start to control your life. This has happened to kids as well as adults.
  • In boys and men, using pornography is often accompanied by masturbation. That can become another habit that is hard to break.
  • Pornography can cause serious conflicts in a marriage, even leading to divorce.
  • More than 30 years of research (e.g., Nelson, et al., 2023) find that religion is protective against sexual risk-taking, so if your family practices a religious faith, consider bringing that into the conversation about pornography (e.g., “Sex is a beautiful gift from God. Pornography abuses that sacred gift”).

What schools can do

Schools can teach the dangers of pornography as part of media literacy and/or digital safety. Education about pornography’s harms should also be accompanied by character-focused "sexual risk avoidance education," using a text such as Sex and Character by Deborah Cole and Maureen Duran.

The Teens and Pornography report shows that schools need to step up to the plate and deal with the growing problem of students viewing porn during school hours, even in classrooms and on school devices. Ask your child's school if they have seen the Teens and Pornography report and how the school is addressing porn use during school.

Adults won't be able to solve that problem acting alone. Solving problems in the peer culture requires shifting peer norms, and that requires mobilizing positive peer pressure so that it becomes "cool" to do the right thing. See below for a link ( to case studies of award-winning schools that have involved students as partners in creating a schoolwide culture of character.

Teens and adults struggling to quit pornography can find therapists and self-help groups that specialize in this. There are also effective strategies, such as Covenant Eyes (, that involve having an accountability partner. The Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Kevin Majers provides a free program (, with modules on character-strengthening strategies such as reframing, mindfulness, and self-control.


From the editor: How do you feel about Thomas Lickona’s blistering exposé of children’s exposure to pornography? Leave a comment below and send it to your friends!



Our Center’s Smart & Good High Schools study of character development practices in 24 award-winning schools ( describes effective ways to use a whole-school, collaborative process to tackle tough school problems.

Robb, M. B. & Mann, S. (2023). Teens and pornography. Common Sense Media.

Rothman, E. F., Beckmeyer, J. J., Herbenick, D., Fu, T.-C., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2021). The prevalence of using pornography for information about how to have sex: Findings from a nationally representative survey of U.S. adolescents and young adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(2), 629–646.

Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary insights from a U.S. probability sample on adolescents’ pornography exposure, media psychology, and sexual
aggression. Journal of Health Communication, 26(1), 39–46.

Sellgren, K. (June 15, 2016). Pornography “desensitizing” young people. BBC News.

Jenson, K. A. (2014). Good pictures Bad pictures: Porn-proofing today’s young kids. Glen Cove Press.

Nelson, J., Hurst, J., Hardy, S. A., & Padilla Walker, L. (2023). The interactive roles of religion, parenting, and sex communication in adolescent sexual risk-taking. Under review by Applied Developmental Science.


Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist, character educator, and author of How to Raise Kind Kids (Penguin, 2018) and other books on character development in the family and school. He writes a parenting blog, “Raising Kind Kids,” for Psychology Today

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