Children as young as two have been caught accessing explicit content online, according to a new survey published today.
The research, carried out by independent comparison service uSwitch.com, showed three million UK families had discovered their children viewing violent, explicit or pornographic material on the internet, with the youngest age quoted being two-years-old.
Marie-Louise Abretti, telecoms expert at uSwitch.com said, "Our research reveals a staggering number of children exposed to inappropriate content online at a worryingly young age. Nowadays, children not only have access to home computers, but also portable devices such as tablets and smartphones, so it's far harder for parents to keep tabs on what their children are getting up to."
A 2013 survey by Microsoft Advertising found that the average UK household has six devices that were capable of connecting to the internet, and this latest report suggests that parents are struggling to keep up with the expanding amounts of technology, and how to make it safe for their children.
"Schools, mobile networks and broadband providers all play a part in keeping children safe online, but parents agree they should take primary responsibility," she said. "Unfortunately, not all parents are clued up about the many different parental controls available that can filter inappropriate content and keep their kids safe."
uSwitch's research found that three quarters of parents were unable to name any parental control tools that can be applied to internet-ready devices, and four-in-ten said they had none installed. In an increasing number of cases, parents were resorting to secretly monitoring their children in order to establish what they looked at online; including looking at their child's web history and accessing their social media accounts.
These findings come less than a week after a House of Commons committee review stated that online security for children was 'insufficient' and that the police should be given more funding in order to increase their power to protect children when they use the internet.
David Cameron also used Prime Minister's Questions this month to suggest a broadening of legislation that would look to ban 'rape porn'.
Claire Lilley, Head of Child Safety Online at children's charity the NSPCC, called the findings of the report 'chilling', and warned against the long term effects of exposure to explicit content at a young age.
"The NSPCC has been warning for some time now about the dark influence that extreme, violent and pornographic material can have on children, who can sadly find it relatively easily online. This material can be extremely upsetting and confusing for young people, and be damaging at important stages in their development. It gives them a distorted view of sexual relations and puts pressure on children to imitate what is being shown."
Last month, a 12-year-old boy admitted raping his younger sister after watching porn on an Xbox. He walked free from youth court and is now working with social workers ahead of returning to his family home.
"Pornographic sites have a legal duty to stop under-age access and others can do more to verify the ages of users," said Ms Lilley. "Service providers and website owners must also continue to make it easier for young people to report upsetting content and behaviour, and take swift action to remove it."