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July 11, 2018

Study: Fewer Minors Unintentionally Viewing Online Porn

CALGARY – Of all the arguments for establishing stricter regulation of online content, perhaps none resonate with the public more strongly than the desire to prevent minors from being accidentally and involuntarily exposed to porn.

Among the activists pushing for tighter restrictions on online porn, it’s accepted as an undeniable fact that kids constantly stumble across porn while using the internet for other purposes. One minute, they’re Googling the names of the Founding Fathers, the next they’re eyeballs-deep in gangbang videos — or so the claim goes, at least.

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Calgary and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that while such unwanted and unintentional exposure to online porn does happen, it appears to be happening less frequently than in years’ past – a conclusion which runs counter to a lot of assumptions concerning millennials who have been ‘raised on the internet.’

In their meta-study, the researchers aggregated data from 31 previous studies concerning unwanted online sexual exposure and another nine studies regarding unwanted online sexual solicitation, all published between January 1990 and January 2017. In all, the studies on unwanted online sexual exposure tallied responses from 37,649 subjects, while the nine solicitation studies involved 18,272 participants. The youth who took part in the studies ranged from 12 to 16.5 years in age.

For online exposure, the mean prevalence rate was 20.3%, while for online solicitation the rate was 11.5%. The researchers also found that a smaller percentage of minors reported such experiences in the more recent studies they examined as part of the meta-study.

“We found that the prevalence of online risks has decreased over time,” said Sheri Madigan, one of the study’s authors. “One possibility for this finding is that parents have become more digitally savvy and aware of online risks. 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.”

Matthew Johnson, the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian digital and media literacy resource, said the biggest factor in the decrease in minors’ unwanted exposure to online sexual content and solicitation is a change in how kids use the internet. As Johnson sees it, the shift in recent years has been from browser-based web surfing to use which is primarily app-based.

“Along with improvements by search engines in filtering out inappropriate results (a more app-based approach to surfing) has led to less exposure to professional pornography, but more exposure to sexual content from peers,” Johnson said.

What the research doesn’t mean, Johnson added, is that parents can simply entrust their kids’ online safety to the newer technologies and platforms available for consuming online content.

“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,” Johnson said. And while it’s helpful for parents to have knowledge about the apps and platforms their kids use, “classic parenting skills of being able to support our kids and guide them in dealing with conflicts and relationships” are still crucially important, no matter how tech-savvy both parent and child may be.

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