11/17/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/16/2015 05:59 EST

Pornography, kids and sex education: what to do?

More kids at ever more younger ages are accessing pornography online, according to a pile of studies. 

But while there's some research out there on pornography and young people, there's not much consensus about what, if anything, should be done by parents or in the classroom to address this. 

Today in Winnipeg, a children's advocacy group called Beyond Borders will host a symposium entitled "Generation XXX, the pornification of our children."

Cordelia Anderson, one of the experts scheduled to speak at the symposium, says, referring to the U.S., "the porn industry is the country's main sex educator of our boys and girls."

Anderson is the founding and past president of the U.S. National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

"Young people have never had this ease of access to this type of material at this young of age," she told CBC Radio. "This alone should encourage us to be talking about it and studying it."

Cathy Wing, the co-executive director of Ottawa-based MediaSmarts, another conference speaker, says "we really need to talk to kids from an early age, before they become exposed to online porn."

28% of boys look for porn at least once a week

In May, her group published the results of a survey that found 23 per cent of students in grades 7-11 say they have searched out pornography online. Twenty-eight per cent of the boys said they looked for porn at least once a week.

As Wing observes, "there seems to be less of a stigma about looking for pornography, because everybody's doing it, than there is for looking for good information about sexuality." 

Just eight per cent of the students surveyed said they had searched online for information about sexuality.

Of course, when it comes to viewing pornography, there may be a discrepancy between what kids say they do and what they actually do. 

A Spanish survey, for example, said that 53.5 per cent of Spanish youth aged 14 to 17 viewed online porn, while a poll by Opinium Research in June of 500 U.K. 18-year-olds had almost half saying that viewing pornography was typical by age 13-14.

Is porn damaging?

While almost half the U.K. teens said they saw nothing wrong with watching pornography, 70 per cent agreed with the statement that "pornography can have a damaging impact on young people's views of sex or relationships." Just nine per cent disagreed.

"Porn can have both negative and positive impacts," says Alice Gauntley, a sex education activist and a student in gender and sexuality studies at McGill University in Montreal.

"It can reinforce sexist, racist and trans-phobic  stereotypes and give us unrealistic expectations about sex and our bodies. But it can also be a source of pleasure and a means of exploring our sexualities."

But for young teens with no sexual experience, processing the porn on their screens may be quite the challenge. Gauntley argues, "it is necessary to equip teens with the tools they need to make sense of the erotic material they might come across."

Sex educators are concerned that young people are getting the wrong picture about sex from viewing online pornography.

As Cathy Wing points out, "you're not going to get realistic portrayals in the pornography industry. It's a business; everything is constructed, like all media." 

She advises teachers and parents to "make sure the kids understand that this is not reflecting reality, that it's a constructed reality that contains bias and it's there to make money."

Fantasy, not reality

Sex therapist Wendy Maltz says that while kids have a sense that they should view pornography as fiction, she doesn't think they do. 

"That takes a lot of high-order thinking to maintain that, especially under the influence of sexual arousal. It can start getting blurry when there's an excitement associated with it."

Maltz is the author of The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography. 

And, as she says, "the image is the reality on the internet."

Maltz says you won't stop young people's curiosity about sex, but that it's important for them to know that curiosity is normal.

"It doesn't mean you're sick if you found this stuff exciting," she said.

It bothers Maltz that, because of the prevalence of pornography, "kids are getting robbed of having their own sexual conditioning come from real-life romantic experiences."

She would like to see kids start getting a healthy sex education before they start viewing pornography.

Getting educated about porn

But where should young people get that education?

Linda Kasdorf is studying the impact of pornography on children and youth for her social work degree at the University of Saskatchewan. She also works at Saskatoon Christian Counselling Services.

She says parents have the responsibility not only to protect kids from pornography, but also to educate them about sex. 

"Sexual intimacy is totally missed when kids view porn, and there's no way to prepare them to understand that void."

Kasdorf argues when it comes to pornography, the education needs to begin with the adults. "Many parents have no idea that their children can even access pornography, they're that naive."

For Kasdorf, "parents needs to be taught how to talk about pornography with their kids, how to help dissect experiences when kids are exposed to pornography."

But she also wants to see pornography become a component of school sex education programs. Those programs should ensure that "kids actually have trusted adults that they can talk to about things they're curious about."

Gauntley would like to see a media literacy component on pornography "because it encourages teens to be critical thinkers — to be able to recognize the differences between sex in porn and in real life."

For his part, Chris Markham, head of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, argues that sex education is a shared responsibility for parents, schools and the community but "parents are the first educators of their children."

Markham personally thinks the provincial curriculum should address the internet pornography issue, but for his organization, that's down the road. 

In their province, the curriculum for sex education dates from the 1990s, when internet porn and the oldest of today's students were in their infancy.