They'll see adult content. Here's what we can do.

three teens stand together looking at phones

Internet connections to and from schools are abuzz with research, educational games, learning management systems, and digital citizenship lessons. But occasionally, students are accessing content they shouldn't. Sometimes that means games, sometimes social media—and sometimes pornography.

Though kids are mostly finding pornography—by mistake or on purpose—at home, our research shows that it's sometimes viewed on school grounds, since many teens have access to their smartphones and/or school-issued devices throughout the school day. According to Common Sense's 2023 research report, 73% of teen respondents have consumed online pornography. 41% of those teens have viewed adult content during the school day, and nearly half of those used school-issued devices. It's often happening with students younger than you might expect: 54% of teens surveyed said they had seen online pornography when they were 13 or younger. While conversations about pornography aren't necessarily for teachers to take on, it's important to be aware, prepared to discuss the elements that affect the classroom and student well-being, and armed with resources to help families.

Not the Pornography of the Past

First, it's important to know that what some adults may think of as pornography has evolved in the age of the internet. Of course, we won't get into specifics, but we're not just talking about videos of scripted sex. Video games, manga, memes, and more can all have pornographic elements. And it's all easy to find and access, especially if a kid lies about their age. YouTube, Reddit, Discord, and other mainstream social media sites and apps host pornographic content (or otherwise adult and inappropriate for school) that's only meant for adults and is blocked by gates of one kind or another, but many can be accessed by simply entering a fake birthday or tapping on a "Yes, I'm over 18" button.

Potential Impacts

Even though it's perfectly normal for adolescents to be curious about sex, we don't want it to happen. So let's dig into the specific reasons why. First of all, pornography is developmentally inappropriate for children and can shape ideas of sex in harmful ways. Kids simply aren't sophisticated enough to navigate these complex and sometimes problematic issues, from unrealistic body types, to degrading portrayals of men and women, and the boundaries between pleasure and violence. All of this can desensitize young people in different ways; for instance, among the 16- to 17-year-old teens we surveyed who had seen pornography, 21% said they believe that most people like to be hit during sex. (Only teens in this age range were asked this question.)

What to Do and What to Avoid

Despite the concerns, stifling kids' curiosity about sex in general isn't the answer. And while we want firewalls and cybersecurity in schools to set boundaries around content, we don't want to shut down all access to information. If we've learned anything since the advent of the internet, it's that kids will find a way to access what they want. Also, school firewalls won't affect students' personal devices if they're not on the network. Instead, it's our responsibility as adults to educate our kids—in the right context—because if we don't prepare them for when they encounter pornography, they will keep what they've seen secret, or turn to a peer (likely just as ill-informed!) for more information.

Talking Points for the Classroom

While some parents or caregivers don't want any talk of sexuality happening in schools, sex education may be a part of the curriculum in some districts, and it's best for teachers to know school policy and expectations for such conversations. If you're comfortable talking about sex and pornography in the classroom, there are several ways to approach the topic in healthy and productive ways. Check out the following talking points:

"It's possible to see things online that you don't mean to."

Whether it's being exposed to violent images or pornography, sometimes kids stumble upon the content. Talk with students and let them know that, if this happens, it's best for them to tell you or a caregiver, even if it feels embarrassing. Let them know they won't get in trouble for accidentally stumbling on it, but definitely do not show it to their friends and classmates!

"Curiosity is OK."

It's totally normal for kids to be curious about sex, bodies, and what's out there online. Sweeping this fact under the rug—or worse, using scare tactics—is only detrimental to kids' understanding of healthy sexual relationships. You could advise students that searching online for answers about sex is risky due to the issues mentioned above, and that it's better to use trusted resources.

"What you learn from watching sex online isn't what you need to know about sex."

Whatever the form—video, pictures, animation, etc.—the way sex is shown online isn't the information you need when you're learning about sex. Getting information from parents and caregivers, books, or approved sites is best.

"Here are our rules for being online."

Even if you don't have to address a specific instance of pornography being viewed at school, it's always smart to review school policies for device usage and to check that your school has safer searching and firewall protocols in place. These safeguards aren't necessarily a total solution, but they may help. You may even consider adopting a tech planner or contract for use at school and/or at home.

Family Outreach

Whether the message comes from a school administrator or a teacher, it might be appropriate to conduct outreach to help inform parents and caregivers about what's happening. Check out these articles from Common Sense Education for more information.


Paul Barnwell

A New Hampshire-based handyman, writer, and hobby farmer, Paul Barnwell is a freelance contributor to Common Sense Education. Paul lived and taught high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, for 13 years, where he embraced bluegrass music, barbecue, and horse racing. He's been published in the Atlantic online, Education Week, and Harvard's Ed. magazine, among other outlets. Paul and his wife, Rebecca, now reside in central New Hampshire.

Christine Elgersma

Christine Elgersma is Senior Editor, Learning Content, Strategy which means she manages the newsletter about learning, edits writing about learning, and loves to learn. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and taught the youth of America as a high school teacher, a community college teacher, a tutor, and a special education instructional aide for about 18 years. Christine is also a writer, primarily of fiction and essays, and loves to read all manner of books. When she's not putting on a spontaneous vaudeville show with her daughter, Christine loves nature, music, and almost any form of dark chocolate.