IT Infrastructure

Students Are Viewing Porn at School. How Educators Can Stop Them

By Alyson Klein — January 10, 2023 3 min read
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Nearly a quarter of teenagers said they have viewed pornography at school, according to a report released Jan. 10 by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that studies the impact of technology on youth.

Assistant principal Scott Wisniewski found that finding disturbing, but not particularly surprising. On the day of the report’s release, he had spent part of the morning talking to two students who were caught looking at inappropriate images online.

“Twenty years ago, it was more of a process to acquire that type of materials. And now it’s not hard at all,” said Wisniewski, who works at Wayne Valley High School in New Jersey. “This is really the first time a lot of us, even in education, are navigating these conversations.”

Many students look at pornographic images quite a bit at school. Sixty percent of the teens who said they had viewed pornography during the school day said they had done so several times a month. And 40 percent said they had done so at least weekly. About 24 percent of boys had looked at porn while physically in school, compared with about 20 percent of girls.

What’s more, 13 percent of the overall number of teens surveyed said they had viewed pornography on a school-issued device.

That has Wisniewski wondering: “If they’re doing this on their school device, what do you think they’re doing on a personal device?”

In fact, the figures on personal devices seem to be much higher, Common Sense found. Nearly three quarters of teens have seen online porn in some form, the report found, and more than half—54 percent—had seen it by age 13. While many teens look at pornography intentionally, 58 percent of those who reported seeing porn online said they saw it accidentally.

The survey, which was conducted in September, included more than 1,300 teenagers in the United States. This is the first time that Common Sense has examined this issue. As far as the organization is aware, the report is the first to consider online pornography use among a large, demographically representative sample of teens, a Common Sense spokeswoman said.

‘Get a step ahead of them’

Chris Smallen, the chief technology officer for Lenoir City Schools, near Knoxville, Tenn., suspects that if there were prior data, it would show the problem has worsened in recent years, due to the expansion in the number of district-issued laptops and tablets, spurred by the pandemic.

A survey of educators in the spring of 2021 by the EdWeek Research Center found that about two-thirds recalled there was one school-issued device for every middle and high school student before the pandemic. Another 42 percent said the same about elementary school kids.

Those numbers skyrocketed during the pandemic, when nearly every school engaged in some form of virtual learning, fueled in part by federal relief cash. By March of 2021, 90 percent of educators surveyed said their school or district had at least one device for every middle and high schooler, the EdWeek survey found. An additional 84 percent said the same about elementary school students.

Lenoir City’s 1-to-1 computing initiative was rolled out in 2016, several years before the pandemic. One early challenge: Working out the kinks in online filters to ensure students didn’t get access to inappropriate content.

Smallen remembers a barrage of questions from parents asking how they could strengthen the internet filters on devices at home. He wound up referring them to a short instructional video on parental controls.

Both Lenoir City and Wisniewski’s district, Wayne Valley Public Schools, use tech that doesn’t just block inappropriate sites, it also pings district officials when students try to access them.

That way, school leaders or teachers can “let [students] know they’re being watched,” Smallen said. “The big thing for us is just seeing what they’re trying to get to. Then we can get a step ahead of them.”

Wisniewski’s district also proactively tells students that their online activity is being tracked. He’s hoping that knowledge may clamp down on inappropriate browsing among kids who may not take the district’s messages on digital citizenship to heart.

Nothing in tech is full proof though. Case-in-point: When a teacher who had advised National Honor Society students retired from Lenoir City a few years ago, a foreign pornography site ended up taking over the webpage she had created for students using a free tool, evading the district’s internet filters.

“It was just unavoidable,” Smallen said.

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