The effects of pornography on children and young people

The effects of pornography on children and young people

An evidence scan

Antonia Quadara, Alissar El-Murr and Joe Latham

Research Report— December 2017
Group of youths playing with mobile devices.


In 2016, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) was engaged by the Department of Social Services to review what the available research evidence tells us about the impact exposure to and consumption of online pornography has on children and young people.

The increasing availability of pornography online has raised concerns about the impacts it may have on children and young people's:

  • knowledge of, and attitudes to, sex;
  • sexual behaviours and practices;
  • attitudes and behaviours regarding gender equality;
  • behaviours and practices within their own intimate, sexual or romantic relationships; and
  • risk of experiencing or perpetrating sexual violence.

The purpose of this project was not to duplicate the considerable work undertaken by other researchers working on these issues (e.g., Flood, 2009; Flood & Hamilton, 2003a, 2003b; Sabina, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2008; Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2007; Ybarra & Mitchell, 2005). Rather, the purpose was to synthesise recent research and current approaches/interventions across this range of domains to inform future initiatives to reduce the negative impacts of pornography on children and young people.


Between August and October 2016, the research team reviewed the available research regarding:

  • the effects of pornography on children and young people in relation to the issues listed above; and
  • current approaches and interventions that have been developed to address the negative effects of pornography and support respectful relationships.

Research undertaken in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Ireland, Scandinavia and Canada was prioritised. To varying degrees, the international contexts listed here share some similarities with Australia, such as political and legislative systems. However, the implications of the research are not fully transferable.

The literature was then synthesised to:

  • draw conclusions about the key effects of pornography on children and young people and how this relationship between pornography and associated impacts is best understood;
  • identify factors that might help explain or mediate the relationship between exposure to pornography and other "sexualising" materials and the impact on children and young people (i.e., risk and protective factors); and
  • identify promising approaches to addressing this issue with children and young people, including key learnings.

Terminology used in this report

The term "pornography" is typically used across the academic and public policy literature as well as in popular and news media to describe sexually explicit material that is generally intended to sexually arouse the audience (Flood, 2016). This can be a useful shorthand; however, it is important to note that there is not a singular type of pornography. There is diversity in the form pornography takes (e.g., text, images, anime, video), its content (e.g., the sexualities and practices represented) and its production context. This variation is important to keep in mind when discussing the harms associated with online pornography, and it may make more sense to speak of "pornographies" to acknowledge this diversity. Some researchers have used the term sexually explicit material (SEM) and sexually explicit Internet material (SEIM) to refer to "online [pictures and] videos that depict sexual activities and genitals in unconcealed ways and are typically intended to arouse the viewer" (Hare, Gahagan, Jackson, & Steenbeek, 2014, p. 148).

At the same time, there is a dominant style and form of pornography that is easily accessible via the Internet, largely targets a male heterosexual audience and which makes up the majority of the global pornography industry (Crabbe, 2016). Arguably, it is this form of pornography that is animating contemporary discussions about the harms associated with exposure to and consumption of online pornography.

In this report, the terms "pornography" and "online pornography" are predominantly used to encompass:

  • textual, visual and audio-visual sexually explicit material that is generally intended to sexually arouse the audience;
  • mainstream, dominant forms of pornography; and
  • pornographic material that is uploaded, accessed, shared and downloaded via online platforms.


There are several caveats for the reader to keep in mind:

  • The literature reviewed was limited to empirical and other research published as academic, peer-reviewed publications or research reports published in non-commercial form available online (i.e., grey literature).
  • The search strategies limited searches to:
    • research published between 2005 and 2016; and
    • literature published in English in Australia and relevant international contexts: Canada, NZ, the USA, the UK, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

This means that research studies published after 2016 have necessarily been excluded and that traditional research studies have been privileged. These research studies often lag behind the issues practitioners, educators and others are seeing in their work.

Report structure

The report is structured in two parts. The first part provides a synthesis of the literature and its implications for developing initiatives to address the harms associated with online pornography. The second part presents a review of the literature informing the synthesis report.

The evidence library collated and used in this project is provided as a separate attachment to the report.

Publication details

Research Report
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, December 2017.
62 pp.
Suggested citation:

Quadara, A., El-Murr, A. & Latham, J. (2017). The effects of pornography on children and young people: An evidence scan. (Research Report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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