evolve_logo
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.

Parental Controls: Teens Still See Pornography Despite Parents’ Best Intentions

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Mental Health Distress in Teens Obsessed with Pornography

Parenting a teenager in the internet age is challenging.

Thirty years ago, it was possible to control a teenager’s access to media with relative ease. Smartphones did not exist. Most families had televisions, but most programming was PG, with the exception of cable TV, where blocking explicit content was simple and straightforward.

Twenty years ago, when computers became more common than uncommon in homes, things got trickier. Teens could go online and access content that was previously unobtainable. Parents quickly learned about parental controls, however, and few teens had the skill to bypass them.

Ten years ago, when smartphones became common, the situation became more problematic. Teens could access content anywhere, on any phone. Parents soon learned about parental controls, which can work well, in some cases. But teens learned various methods to get around the controls and access blocked content.

And over the past five years, it’s safe to say that because of the proliferation of smartphones and early exposure to digital media and devices, teens have become more tech savvy than their parents.

Meaning they can find ways to bypass the controls that parents put in place.

This also means that practically speaking, a teen can view anything, at any time, on virtually any device. That includes devices parents think are locked or blocked or controlled. This is a cause for concern because the latest data on teen screen media use shows that:

  • 94% of teens use screen media on any given day
  • The average time a teen spends on screens is 6 hours and 40 minutes
  • 16% of teens spend less than two hours on screens
  • 26% of teens spend more than 8 hours on screens

That’s a lot of screen time.

Is it safe to assume that teens use some of that time to view pornography?

Adolescence, Sexual Development, and Pornography

A major element of adolescent development involves the formation of a sexual identity. It also involves increasing curiosity about sex and sexual activity. Therefore, we say “Yes.”  It’s safe to assume that some of our teens spend some of their screen time viewing sexually explicit material.

Most parents do their best to prevent their teens from viewing sexually explicit content (pornography) online. The most common way parents restrict access is by using the parental control options on the various devices their teens have. These include smartphones, home computers, and tablets. However, many teens find ways around these parental controls and access explicit content anyway.

This raises significant concerns among parents. The primary concern is that viewing porn may have a detrimental effect on their teen’s mental health. We’ll address that in this article, right away. We’ll also tell parents how teens get around their parental controls, and how to find out if their teens are, indeed, bypassing those controls.

First, though, to answer the mental health question. In a paper published in 2020 called “Problematic and Non-problematic Pornography Use and Compulsive Sexual Behaviors Among Understudied Populations: Children and Adolescents,” researchers concluded:

“Pornography use is not reliably linked with mental health problems. However, pornography use is linked with objectification processes, sexual permissiveness, and risky sexual behavior.”

For most parents, that’s simultaneously a relief and an added concern. We’ll offer a list of the problems viewing porn can cause in teens in just a moment. These problems include increased likelihood of objectification, permissiveness, and risky behavior.

First, though, we want to address what we mentioned above: how do teens get around the parental controls?

How Do They Do It? A Guide for Parents

We have mixed feelings about presenting this list, because, for teens who aren’t tech savvy, it may give them ideas. With that said, this information is important for parents to know, and can help them prevent their teens from watching porn online. That’s why, for every method on this list, we present a way to prevent it.

Ready?

Here goes.

How Teens Get Around Parental Controls

Disclaimer: This is not a how-to guide for teens. Rather, it’s a how-to-find-out if your teen is getting around your controls – and how to prevent that from happening moving forward.

  1. The Administrator function on a PC or a Mac. A tech savvy teen can access the admin function on a PC. They can make themselves an administrator. They can adjust any parental controls currently in place on the PC they use. It’s not hard: step-by-step directions are easy to find with a simple internet search.
To find out if your teen has set themself up as an administrator on their PC, access your PCs admin account, which will identify administrators on the device. If you see one you don’t recognize, remove it.
  1. Virtual Private Network (VPN) Software. A tech savvy teen can go online and download a VPN, which allows them to anonymously browse anything they choose on the internet. VPNs exist for safe browsing on public Wi-Fi networks, or for private, encrypted browsing from a smartphone or home computer.
To find out if your teen has installed a VPN on their PC, phone, or tablet, check all the apps currently installed on the device you’re looking at. Determine which apps you know and which apps you don’t. Remove, uninstall, or delete any VPNs or suspicious looking apps.
  1. Unblocking or Proxy Sites. A tech savvy teen can go online and search for a proxy site. These sites allow them to bypass parental internet filters by rerouting the flow of information through another server. This allows teens to view restricted websites through the proxy site, rather than visiting the websites themselves, which may be restricted by parental controls.
To find out if your teen uses a proxy site, monitor their internet history closely. Some proxy sites will delete all browsing info after two hours. If you suspect your teen visits porn sites, you may need to check frequently in order to find out what they see. However, using a blocking or proxy site is a red flag. You can block those sites to keep your teen from using them.
  1. Factory Reset for iPhones, iPads, Android Phones, and Android tablets. This is the easiest way for a teen to bypass parental controls on any device. If your teen resets a device to factory settings, any controls you installed will disappear. They are able to browse freely.
To find out if your teen reset a device, first access the device. Look for any apps or services you know you set up. If the install date is later than the date you installed them, then the device has likely been reset by someone else – maybe your teen. The same is true for Windows and other OS (operating systems): the device should record the date the operating system was restored and/or initialized. If that date is later than the date you initialized the system or restored the system, then someone else – maybe your teen – reset the device themselves in order to bypass your parental controls.
  1. They use friend’s devices that have no controls.
If you find out if your teen views porn on a friend’s device, you may need to have a serious conversation with the friend’s parents about it. You can control device use in your home, but not in another person’/s home, or out in the world. This is the hardest thing to control. Ultimately, you can’t control other families, their rules, or their teens.

Those are the main methods teens use to get around parental controls. Now we’ll rewind and talk about the serious problems watching pornography can cause for teenagers.

Teens and Pornography: Twenty Negative Consequences

We briefly mention the problems watching porn can cause in teens, such as “objectification (mainly of women), permissiveness, and risky behavior.” A study published in 2012 called “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research” expands on these issues, and discusses additional problems watching pornography can cause for teens who are porn obsessed.

Twenty Ways Viewing Sexually Explicit Internet Material (SEIM) Affects Teens

Data shows that…

  1. Teens who watch SEIM may develop “…unrealistic attitudes about sex and misleading attitudes toward relationships.”
  2. Teens who watch SEIM may develop “…the notion of sex as primarily physical and casual rather than affectionate and relational.”
  3. Teens who watch sexually explicit internet material (SEIM) may develop “…a strong cognitive engagement in sexual issues, sometimes at the exclusion of other thoughts.”
  4. The more often teens consume SEIM, the more often they think about sex and the stronger their interest in sex becomes. These teens often become distracted from other things because of their frequent thoughts about sex.
  5. Teens who watch SEIM may experience sexual arousal related to sex-related thoughts and memories in memory. This can lead to chronic and detrimental preoccupation with sex.
  6. Teen boys who watch sexually explicit internet material (SEIM) risk learning to think about women only in terms of their sexual appeal, their appearance, and the appearance of their sexual organs.
  7. Teen boys who watch SEIM may learn to think that a woman’s sexuality is the only criteria for attractiveness and view women as “sexual playthings” that are always willing and ready to satisfy sexual desire.
  8. Both boys and girls who watch SEIM have an increased likelihood of viewing women as sexual objects.
  9. Exposure to sexually explicit material increases the chance that teens will accept and engage in sexually permissive/ risky behavior.
  10. Chronic exposure to sexually explicit internet material (SEIM) increases the likelihood of having sex with a friend, having group sex, oral sex, and/or anal sex.
  11. 71% of teens think SEIM affects peer behavior, but only 29% of teens think SEIM influences their behavior.
  12. For males and females, early exposure to SEIM increases the likelihood of engaging in oral sex or intercourse.
  13. Teens who view high risk SEIM – without responsible education on risks – are more likely to participate in high-risk sexual behavior
  14. Teen males at general risk of aggressive behavior who also view SEIM are four times more likely to engage in sexual aggression than similarly aggressive males who do not view SEIM.
  15. Teen males who view SEIM in early adolescence are more likely to engage in harassing behavior later in adolescence.
  16. Male and female teens may internalize pornographic concepts of sexuality and attempt to mimic that behavior in sexual situations.
  17. Teen males who view sexually explicit internet material (SEIM) develop unrealistic ideas about male sexual performance, and worry they will not be adequate if and when they do have sex.
  18. Female teens who view SEIM and compare themselves to the women in porn may feel unattractive. According to one respondent in the study, “You can say that you aren’t influenced by this, but no one can resist. You do want to have these ideal bodies.”
  19. Overexposure to sexually explicit material may compromise self-regulation and cognitive control. When that impaired self-regulation and cognitive control interacts with sexual impulses and/or sexual drives, the sexual drives may overpower the cognitive control, and result in risky behavior.
  20. Images have a greater impact on memory and behavior than written or spoken words. Researchers theorize that because of this, pornographic images may supersede any text or lecture-based sexual education, resulting in unrealistic expectations or risky behavior.

That’s what the research says. Although no available data links viewing pornography online to mental health issues in teens, the research clearly connects viewing pornography with problems in the development of individual sexuality, sexual identity, sexual expectations (for both males and females), and subsequent sexual behavior.

How This Information Helps Parents

Our first list can help parents determine whether their teens use their technical knowledge to bypass parental controls and view pornography online and offers ways to prevent it from happening in the future.

Our second list confirms that, while there is no evidence to support the assertion that viewing pornography online leads to mental health disorders, it can lead to a host of other developmental problems that can have a negative impact on teens.

This is important information for parents and teens alike who may have a casual attitude towards online pornography or may not have thought about its impact. The evidence shows that watching pornography online as a teen can have significant development consequences. We believe parents and teens should consider these consequences as they discuss and set rules around online activity – particularly viewing pornography – in the future.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

Featured Posts

Enjoying these insights?

Subscribe here, so you never miss an update!

Connect with Other Parents

We know parents need support, too. That is exactly why we offer a chance for parents of teens to connect virtually in a safe space! Each week parents meet to share resources and talk through the struggles of balancing child care, work responsibilities, and self-care.

More questions? We’re here for you.