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A grown-up conversation about children and porn online starts here

Subbotina Anna/shutterstock.com

A grown-up conversation about children and porn online starts here

Subbotina Anna/shutterstock.com

The Conservative government has launched the latest salvo in its manifesto pledge to prevent children from accessing pornography online, proposing that pornography websites would have to require age verification – for example a credit card check or some form of electronic identity backed by official ID.

A public consultation from the Department for Culture Media and Sport is asking for responses to these proposals, drawn from our expert panel’s report on how children access pornography online. As part of the same pledge, the government introduced age-rating for music videos online, implemented by YouTube and Vevo, and since 2014 internet service providers, ISPs, have been expected to prompt their customers to decide whether or not they want to have family filtering applied to their internet connection.

Putting aside debates about whether pornography is harmful, or whether the chances of children viewing pornography online are sufficient to warrant major legislation, we do know that in study after study lots of under-18s do report seeing sexual content online or on their phones. It’s hard to determine precise numbers, or whether the content viewed is pornography or more mainstream content (think Game of Thrones nude scenes, or a Rihanna video), but there is evidence that they’re upset by what they see.

Clearly age, content and intent matter a great deal here. There’s a world of difference between a nine-year-old accidentally stumbling on an explicit video, and a 15-year-old seeking out content that helps them understand their sexual feelings or identity. As might be expected, many under-18s tell researchers they have seen sexual content accidentally rather than from seeking it out. Studies of older teens and those in their twenties reveal that they are often shown porn by others – perhaps for laughs, perhaps to shock, or perhaps as part of a relationship. Not all sharing is well-intentioned, and there are gender differences in how such experiences are interpreted.

Other recent studies in Britain, for example a 2012 NSPCC-commissioned report, reveal the extent to which teenage girls in particular can feel threatened by “technology-mediated sexual pressure from their peers”.

More than just a technical challenge

It’s worth noting the sheer range of routes through which pornography is accessible. The Net Children Go Mobile Study 2014 reported that children aged between nine and 16 have seen sexual images most commonly in magazines, television and films (which may or may not be streamed via the internet), as well as on video and photo sharing apps or websites. Others included pop-up ads, social networks and through instant messaging.

It’s quite simply impossible to shut down all of these routes. As John Gilmore, one of the internet’s most famous civil libertarians once put it: “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Just as data packets crossing the internet will find a way around network obstacles, people will copy, re-post and share content to bypass restrictions.

While measures such as family-friendly internet filtering are an important, if imperfect, tools for parents, we mustn’t forget that most pornography (apart from the most extreme forms) is legal for adults to view in the UK. An outright ban or blocking at the ISP level would be significant censorship. So, there’s a technical challenge in allowing adults access to pornography while keeping it away from children, but it presents a challenge to society too.

In terms of controlling the market, it’s currently illegal for companies based in the UK to sell or distribute pornography to anyone under 18, and pornographic material rated R18 (generally films) can only be sold through licensed sex shops. But applying this policy to the internet is difficult. There are many means of online access, and age-verification systems (such as using credit card details or checking against online databases) are not always used by websites, often because of their costs (and because they are not required) or because they may deter customers who can get the same content without checks elsewhere.

Jurisdiction also matters. Analysis by The Economist suggests that there were 700m to 800m pages of porn online, three-fifths of which were hosted in the US. The most obvious sources are the major “tube” sites that offer free content, often directing users towards paid-for sites with which they maintain a symbiotic relationship. But it’s so easy to create, copy and exchange content that pornographic material can be easily found and downloaded using BitTorrent software, or even through social networking – not all of which forbid explicit material.

It’s not child’s play, for kids or us. B Calkins/shutterstock.com

As demonstrated by the Facebook groups that were recently found to contain child abuse images, policing huge private networks for illegal material is fraught with difficulty. Formulating a way of managing access to material across the internet (or at least the web) when it is legal for adults is harder still. Requiring all commercial pornography providers whose content is served in the UK to implement age verification is a big ask – early indications are that some are on board already – but it’s a really important first step.

The lack of a perfect technical or market-level fix makes the challenge for society that much harder. As a nation, British people are not great at having sensible conversations about sex. A cultural history of Carry On films and tittering at pantomimes is accompanied by a state education system where there still isn’t statutory sex and relationship education in all secondary schools. Given that it’s practically impossible to ensure children don’t encounter pornography, surely it’s time we spent more time talking about this – at home, in schools, and as a society in general?

Pornography is fiction: a media product, not an objective depiction of real-life relationships, yet it may be the source of our children’s sexual education, with expectations adjusted accordingly. It’s also part of a wider, increasingly sexualised culture in which mainstream films, television, music videos and video-games can contain graphic and even violent sexual scenes. This should be the start, not the end, of the conversation.