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Guest blog: why aren't we protecting children from porn?

(141 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 24-May-13 17:40:53

A report published today by the govt's Children Commissioner found that children are increasingly exposed to extreme pornography online - and that it's influencing their attitudes towards sex. In this guest blog, Sunday Times columnist (and MN Blogger) Eleanor Mills says it's time to put the protection of children first.

What do you think? Let us have your thoughts on the thread - and if you blog on this issue, don't forget to post your URL.

"Basically, Porn Is Everywhere is the title of a new report published today, from the Office of the Children's Commissioner. It reviews 41,000 pieces of research on the impact of porn and finds that widespread access to porn amongst youngsters is encouraging teenage boys to see girls as sex objects , engage in risky sexual behaviour and have sex earlier. Most worrying of all, it also shows a link between boys who view porn and more aggressive sexual behaviour and violence.

I'm tempted to say I told you so.  For the past three years now I have been writing regularly about what I call Generation XXX (£) and the problems the tsunami of online porn is creating for today's teenagers and their relationships. These days everything from television to music videos, Instagram to the mania for sexting demonstrates the pervasive pornification of youth culture. Yet on we trundle, seemingly indifferent to its pernicious effects. Maybe now the naysayers will agree that there is a problem and take the appropriate action.

The writing has been on the wall about the harm done to youngsters who view adult sexual content on the web for a while. A few months ago, I attended a conference at the University of London's psychology department entitled Virtual Adolescence. As the day unfolded a succession of speakers, including Professor Alessandra Lemma (a world expert on body image and mental disorders) and John Woods, a consultant psychotherapist at the Portman Clinic in London, outlined the mental toll that screen life is taking on our children.

The stand-out talk of the day, given by Woods, was called Child Abuse on a Massive Scale: The Effects of Unregulated Pornography. It made for worrying listening.

Woods cited a study by HealthyMind.com which found the average age of first exposure to such images is six (other recent research has suggested the average age is eight) and that the largest consumers of internet porn are the 12-17 age group. These alarming figures are backed up by a new EU Kids Online survey which found that pornographic and violent content top a list of children's own internet concerns (57% say concerns about internet content "most bothered" people of their age).

In his lecture Woods outlined some disturbing examples from his clinical practice including 'James', whose long-term porn fascination led him to assault a five-year-old boy 'because he wanted to know what it felt like'. James, 16, had watched so much porn, Woods said, that he had "no idea the other person needed to give consent to be penetrated".

Another boy, Jeremy, 14, was "driven mad" by his compulsion to view illegal images; before the police confiscated his computer he had been spending at least two hours a night on increasingly violent porn websites while his parents thought he was doing his homework. During his therapy with Woods, Jeremy explained that the only way he could control the images that kept returning to his mind of animals, kids, stabbing and strangling was to 'switch the computer back on, as then the images were back there' rather than in his head.

I fail to understand how a society that insists on a 9pm watershed for swearing on television and rates cinematic content with 18 certificates so adult material is not seen by children, is so callously slack about the tsunami of brutal, violent porn available with two clicks of a mouse. This bafflement was widely shared at the conference. Woods, who treats young teen sex offenders, likened the inability of society to get a grip on the harm being done to a kind of 'mass psychosis'.

Why do we let it slide? The first reason is ignorance: many parents equate porn with the top-shelf centrefolds of their own youth, unaware of the smorgasbord of violent perversion so easily available on the internet. Attempts by the government, led by the MP Claire Perry, to establish an 'opt-in' system for the internet (the default setting for an internet feed would be porn-free unless users specifically asked for adult material, in which case they would have to prove they were over 18) has failed. The government, under pressure from internet service providers, has instead gone for a weaker system that prompts new users of broadband to set up parental controls on individual computers.

"That is inadequate, completely inadequate," countered Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister, when I popped in to see her in Westminster. "The opt-in is so important. The problem with relying on parental controls is that every self-respecting child can get round them." That's why a new system, whereby internet service providers can give households who want it a clean feed - ie one without porn, so adults can opt-in for porn if they want to rather than children coming across it when they don't want to - is, in my view, so important.

Abbott sees internet porn as a public health matter. Since she spoke out about this at the Fawcett Society last month she has been taken aback by her postbag: "I've had hundreds of letters - they are really touching because they are not part of some orchestrated campaign but are from genuine women describing their distress at the pornification of culture and the sexualisation of women and girls that goes hand in hand with it.

"People think when you raise this that you're complaining about pictures of girls with bare breasts. Well, I'm not particularly concerned about bare breasts. What these children are seeing online is of an entirely different order; it is really horrible stuff which brutalises and degrades women. There'z a link between exposure to that sort of pornography and violence within relationships."

Abbott is right about that. Woods cited research that shows adolescents who watch internet pornography not only "relax their boundaries towards sexual violence" but are also more likely to "see women as sex objects and engage in risk- taking behaviours such as unprotected sex".

The Icelandic government is so concerned about the way violent internet porn seems to stoke sexual aggression that it is considering becoming the first democracy in the western world to ban online pornography. "We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti- violence," says Halla Gunnarsdottir, an adviser to the interior minister. Porn in this definition is not sexually explicit material but images that show hateful, violent sex.

That is exactly what the internet is awash with. So when children click on porn out of a natural curiosity to find out about sex (sex is the most common word typed into search engines), what they find isn't loving, consensual acts - albeit of a raunchy nature - but the most outré acts you can imagine (and many you can't).

The fact that society does not attempt to control or ban the extreme material that is so easily available sends our young people the message that it's standard to have group sex - and that violence is acceptable. Understandably, young people are confused, frightened and disturbed by what they see. Add arousal to that mix (patterns of early sexual arousal tend to stick for life) and it's not surprising that psychologists are worried.

Of course, it is oversimplistic to say that if you watch a rape-style fantasy online you immediately go out and commit one - but what a range of experts are beginning to agree upon is that widespread consumption of internet pornography, particularly at a tender age, shifts the way people think about intimacy, relationships and women. (Gail Dines, author of Pornland, describes just how porn hooks young men in in this article I published last week in the Sunday Times News Review. [£])

A good barometer of porn's influence is the fact that young people, raised on hairless porn stars, spend vast amounts of time and money having their pubic hair removed for fear of being seen as unattractive. Similarly, psychologists commonly report adolescents seeing sex as all about performance - ie, does it look like the porn they have seen? - rather than it being about a connection with the other person or pleasure.

Teens are caught in a web of pornified norms: sexting, indulging in unsafe sexual behaviour and generally feeling freaked out by 'expectations' implicit in the material they are viewing. I met one 14-year-old who was being sent porn clips by her boyfriend as prompts to what he wanted them to do that Saturday night. Woods, too, spoke of how porn spills over into reality, telling of a 17-year-old boy who reported himself for treatment because he had started following women down the street and was frightened he might "go further" in acting out his porn-fuelled fantasies.

Woods spoke passionately of the need to educate people about the risks of teen porn consumption, to support research that examines the effects of internet pornography and to "legally implement technological solutions that separate internet content, allowing consumers to choose the type of legal content they wish to have access to" - in other words, an 'opt-in' system.
It's up to all of us to make it happen.

I feel so strongly about all of this that on 2pm on June 11th at the offices of the think tank Policy Exchange in central London, I'm organising a conference on the subject, entitled Generation XXX. Attendees include MPs Claire Perry and Diane Abbott and Gail Dines, author of PornLand, an American academic who has led the charge on the damaging effects of porn. Dr John Woods from the Portman clinic, whose talk I mention above, will also be speaking - alongside some of the youth workers dealing with the fall-out from all of this on the front line. If you would like tickets (which are free) contact events@policyexhange.org.uk."

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Tee2072 Fri 24-May-13 20:16:36

I agree porn is not good for children.

But I disagree it being banned by a government (And how will that work? How will they block Big Breasted Women and not block Breast Cancer Help?) or at the ISP level is the answer.

The answer is parental education and children's education. Why are these kids learning about sex only on porn sites? Where's sex ed? Where is parental accountability?

Also, those samples are obviously extreme ones. Not all children will be come sex predators if exposed to porn any more than they start carrying guns from playing video games.

WuzzleMonkey Fri 24-May-13 21:06:53

Great blog, thank you for sharing it.

As a mother of two daughters this terrifies me.

Tee - you quite rightly say "The answer is parental education and children's education. Why are these kids learning about sex only on porn sites? Where's sex ed? Where is parental accountability?"

Unfortunately, as a youth worker I know that parental accountability is absent in many cases.

I don't like the idea that the state should have to act in loco parentis in such a fundamentally important area. But I hate the idea more that my daughters may end up dating boys who have grown up with this stuff and see it as normal.

I'm anti censorship to a point...I guess this is where I draw my line in the sand.

StephanieDA Fri 24-May-13 21:14:21

Children and young people are exposed to pornography's message wherever they look in our culture, whether it's in newspapers displayed at toddler height or taken into children's homes, on Facebook which doesn't seem willing to moderate images of sexual violence against women, or on t.v. where the 'porn look' is seen as 'liberating and fun'. The basic message of women's role as sexual entertainment for men is reinforced everywhere and taken to its inevitably violent extreme in the kind of online porn available now.

If the definition of 'grooming' is making something seem normal and desirable, then our culture is grooming our young generation into the roles assigned to them by porn. It is the responsibility of society to also be accountable for the environment our young people grow up in - the responsibility cannot rest wholly on the shoulders of parents.

We have not yet caught up with the fact that the online world is a new form of 'public space' and it should be a safe space for everyone. Those who want violent porn should be the ones who make the effort to seek it out, those who don't want it shouldn't have to try to find ways to avoid it.

ecclesvet Fri 24-May-13 21:16:26

Pornography is trivially easy to block in your own home, the problem is parents who won't learn how to do it then blame the government and the ISPs for 'allowing' it to reach their children.

Tee2072 Fri 24-May-13 21:36:16

Wuzzle I am 100% anti-censorship. No exceptions. I don't agree with children watching porn, of course, but I am not willing to lose my ability to watch it because other parents can't be bothered to parent. Or read or watch anything else.

That way lies Big Brother and other rights removed.

WuzzleMonkey Fri 24-May-13 21:45:34

We're back to your question about differentiating about how we block different types of porn though, aren't we Tee?

I support your ability to watch 'Big Breasted women'. I don't support your ability to watch vulnerable, trafficked women have penises shoved down their throats until they gag or be tortured in many other myriad ways.

Tee2072 Fri 24-May-13 21:57:48

I don't disagree with that, wuzzle. But there is no way to filter the one without filtering the other. There just isn't. Opt-in is not a good option. It's too full of holes.

If you opt-out, there is no way to allow you to search for my previous example. Blocking breast will block breast. Period. End of.

WuzzleMonkey Fri 24-May-13 22:08:54

As a grown adult, though, if you want to search for porn you can simply opt into it, isn't that the point?

It's still there and accessible, just not to everyone.

WuzzleMonkey Fri 24-May-13 22:11:01

(Disclaimer: I know very little about the technicalities of how the proposed opt-in function would work or how a person's age would be verified)

'Something Must Be Done!'

'Here is Something; We Must Do It'

FloraFox Fri 24-May-13 22:29:49

Tee2072 I am 100% anti-censorship. No exceptions.

So no libel laws then? Child pornography? What about depictions of brutal murder (real or fake)? Full sex on tv during the day? How about advertisers telling lies about their products? No restrictions on reporting criminal cases?

Dawntreader Fri 24-May-13 22:44:23

I am as appalled as anyone is about children's exposure to porn - especially the suggestion that it happens as young as six, the age of my daughter. But there is an easy preventative measure. Why is it regarded as mornal that children have unregulated screen tine at that age - or indeed any screen time? If you don't make it part of normal life they don't ask for it. My daughter had no TV or any other screen until school at 4 and a half. She didn't miss it. She occassionally saw cbeebies at friend's houses and we gradually introduced DVDs (thomas and chuggington mainly) when she started asking about TV and she didn't clock that there were other options. Since then naNny mcfee, chitty chitty bang bang and matilda have been favourites on her once a wEek short sessions. She does use my PC occassionally - while I'm in room cooking - and plays mathletics, chictionary and various cbeebies games. Is she missing out? No. She's a voracious reader and although she might be a but perplexed by theme tunes and catch phrases she picks them up in the playground.

I know some think it"s lunatic but I havea self reliant, articualte child (I suspect partly as a result) who will happily read a book or write and draw a story to amuse herself or make up a complicated game or "a mystery" involving hand drawn "clues" hidden around the house. Where my censorship runs aground is magazines. Once they grouw out of thomas and Cbeebies and the irritating Dora what next? Princess or Girl talk which is basically sub teen but aimed at five year olds with give away lipsticks and sub- adolescent teen angst plotlines. It makes seventies era Jackie look a bit prim.

And that's whatks really hard to avoid as it's knee level in Sainsbury's. Yet apparently there's little market for something more wholesome. Where is the parallel to Bunty or Twinkle or Diana (all 60s and 70s mags that alllowed little girls to be just that and enjoy it without being rushed into premature adolescence) now? If we are complicit in allowing the sexualisation of children by less obvious means than porn it's small wander they are unshockable when that's what they encounter.

Dawntreader Fri 24-May-13 22:49:58

There is a big difference between being anti-censorship about adult comment and anti-sensible restrictions to protect minors - which I would not define as censorship but instead a Rawlsian protection of the fundamental right to innocence.

JoyMachine Sat 25-May-13 00:11:06

What is horrifying is the thought that no matter how safe I keep my children, and educate them about normal, healthy relationships... it is for nought if those they end up in relationships have been exposed to early sexualisation and porn.

katykuns Sat 25-May-13 00:57:15

Joymachine... I feel the same way. I am finding myself worrying about my girls (6 and 1) as teens. Will they be forced to do things out of their comfort zone because such extreme behaviours are considered the norm within their peers? I hope not.

I'd like to think that its all not quite so black and white. That the cases the Blogger cites are affected by other influences than just porn.

I agree with bringing in an opt-in system wholeheartedly. I think it would be good for the adults too, if it limits the horrible fetishes like torture porn or semi realistic videos of rape. I think the people watching that for fun could do without it frankly.

Tee2072 Sat 25-May-13 07:36:41

Flora you are confusing censorship and acts of law regarding speech that has already occurred.

No, those things should not be censored. Anyone can say whatever they want.

And they will get in trouble for saying them if what they say is illegal, based on the laws that some people feel are necessary. Not everyone agrees with lack of sex on TV during the day or not showing murder (real or fake) or even child porn. I am not saying I want to see any of those things, but assuming on a planet of over 7 billion people that no one wants to see them is just ridiculous.

It's time for people to start taking responsibility for their own actions and feelings and for them to stop expecting the government to do everything.

Rooble Sat 25-May-13 07:43:49

Dawntreader (love your name): there are vg magazines such as NG Kids which are aimed at both boys and girls so no lipstick in sight.

I think the opt-in is a good idea but need to understand how this applies to mobile devices. My DS is only Y1, but in his school children from Y3/Y4 are starting to have smartphones (????? Really do not understand the need!), IPod touches, Kindle Fires etc etc etc which put them online totally out of sight of their parents. And I think the parents naively assume that as long as they monitor what the children are doing on a proper computer/laptop all will be fine.
Is the opt-in on each device, or is it with your ISP, so therefore non-existent when you're out and about? In which case, I would say Iceland is going in the right direction.

Smudging Sat 25-May-13 07:44:13

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

NessaYork Sat 25-May-13 07:47:22

I remember a few years ago channel flicking one Friday night and found on Channel 5 an actual snuff movie. It was about 10pm. It beggars belief to have that kind of thing on mainstream TV on a week night.

My son is now 14 and I see on his Facebook feed the kind of things that no child should be exposed to. (These are things his friends are looking at, which means that he also is exposed to them - I am not for one second saying that he is not also looking at them, although I hope he isn't.) He knows that those images aren't 'healthy' and although we haven't exactly banned him from looking at them at home, he knows those things must not be shown to his sisters.

He's quite good looking so he gets a lot of female attention but the only way I can think of approaching this is to try to encourage him to want a good, healthy relationship instead of thinking about the sex angle. I'm hoping that the omnipresence of porn means that it will lose its allure, relatively speaking. I also talk to him about his sisters, and how he would feel about it if one of them was in a porn photo / video (in the hope he keeps valuing girls as people and not as objects). I'm probably hopelessly naive, but I hope this approach will work in light of the govt's almost complete lack of censorship.

As for my daughters, I agree with Caitlyn Moran's oped in the Saturday Times a few months back. When they are old enough, I will watch 'Girls' with them so they can see for themselves how stupid and pointless porn is, and how deserving of our collective derision.

I fail to understand how a society that insists on a 9pm watershed for swearing on television and rates cinematic content with 18 certificates so adult material is not seen by children, is so callously slack about the tsunami of brutal, violent porn available with two clicks of a mouse.

So Eleanor Mills is comparing

- television
- cinema
- the internet

In the words of our friends from Sesame Street ...

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong

Cinema - a single stream of information, shown in cinemas or bought as a physical product in venues which are within the government's control (I'm not counting downloads here because you're onto the internet then.) Because it's just one stream of information it's simple and economical to have a whole panel of people discuss the content and decide what age range it's appropriate for, if any, using full human judgment.

Age certification doesn't really work too well. By the time your child can reach the shelf and work the DVD, you'll have to take extra precautions - parental controls, if you like. I'm not talking about porn here, just any films you have that are a bit adult in theme - you'll probably want to put them out of sight and reach of your 6y/o because you don't want her/him upset by things they don't understand.

Television - a few streams of information, broadcast across a few networks controlled by the government. The watershed more or less works most of the time because broadcasters are licenced and value their licences.

By the way, if you care about the watershed, you might be interested in this article ...

The Commercial Broadcasters Association is lobbying the government to increase the flexibility of its pin protection rules to allow post-watershed shows to air during the day.

I doubt they want a relaxation of the rules for a bit of swearing. I think the watershed is worth preserving for a few more years, for all its faults, because it still makes life a bit easier. It will be obsolete soon though.

Of course pin protection is a parental control, but in this case it's a bit of a blunt instrument. We're with Virgin and it's the same pin for a slightly racy episode of Coronation Street as it is for the porn channels.

The internet - well, according to this page there are 2,405,518,376 internet users in the world (actually a few more now as that was last June), any one of whom could post content to the internet at any time at all, from just about any country in the world. Nobody needs a licence to post anything and there is no committee of worthy people making decisions over what is posted online. Things will be deleted if they are illegal in the country which is hosting the content, but only after it's already been posted.

The internet isn't like TV or cinema, it's is a completely different sort of problem.

This video attempts to estimate the number of images on the internet.

They will not all be helpfully called prettyflower.jpg or violentporn.jpg. The majority will be called things like image001.jpg or picture2.jpg. There is no technology which can reliably tell the difference between porn and innocent content in an image.

This is all just talking about images - the same problems also apply to videos and live content.

Text can be filtered using keywords. It wouldn't be so hard to block any site using the words 'fuck' or 'cunt' or 'bumsex' ... oh, hang on ...

It's OK though because as WuzzleMonkey points out, if Mumsnet gets blocked we can always opt in. Trouble is of course then the whole household has opted in, and opted in for everything.

It's not callous slackness to point out the glaring flaws in this proposal. In fact I think it's pretty slack to keep demanding a magic porn-be-gone button when it clearly won't work.

I am wholeheartedly against an opt-in system because a single on-off button for the whole household is inadequate.

The government, under pressure from internet service providers, has instead gone for a weaker system that prompts new users of broadband to set up parental controls on individual computers.

In terms of actually protecting children this is not a weaker system, it's sensible advice to use the best tools we currently have - far better than the opt-in idea. Parental controls allow you much more control over what to block and can be tweaked for different age DC. This is good because you might want to set things up differently for a 5 y/o and a 13 y/o and porn may not be the only thing you're concerned about online.

Parental controls on their own are not enough and do nothing to stop your DC accessing porn when they are out of your house (no diffence to the opt-in on this point).

What is needed to protect children is ongoing and age appropriate education and support for both DC and their parents.

I could write so much more but this is very long already and I need to go out now.

Tee2072 Sat 25-May-13 08:02:27

Smudging there are plenty of things on the internet that are about things the person who is being written about/shown on video/etc had no control over.

If you limit one, you have to limit them all. And that's what I'm against.

Like what? You ask:

Any article on any news site, really. If it's news, it's published. Whether that news is 'tornado hits Oklahoma' or 'Tom and Katie split up'. The first is, of course, not about a specific person, but the second is. Do you think Tom and Katie approve of or like having their lives all over the news? Of course not. And yes, they can sue for libel if it's not true. But if it is? They have no more recourse than the child in the child porn. Well, except that child porn is illegal of course, but you have to catch the perpetrators first.

As PlentyOfPubeGardens has very eloquently pointed out, the internet is not TV or movies. It's humongous. It's not one computer sitting in the corner of a room, it's billions of them, all linked together. It's why nothing is ever truly deleted from the 'net. It's why it's impossible to police, without doing something like the extreme measures countries like China employ, which doesn't just restrict porn or things they don't want their citizens to know but restricts everything.

There is no way to turn off porn without turning off useful information. And if you have to opt-in? Then there's your name on a list somewhere. And maybe you opted-in to watch videos of people fucking. Or maybe you opted-in because you were searching for breast cancer and couldn't find anything because breast is blocked by not opting-in.

Smudging Sat 25-May-13 08:14:04

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Tee2072 Sat 25-May-13 08:28:07

Yes, in the name of free speech.

And porn has been around for millennia, not centuries. So long as there have been humans, there have been humans writing/watching/whatevering porn.

The only human right that is 100% inalienable, in my opinion, is the right to say whatever you want whenever you want to say it wherever you want to say it. With the acknowledgement of doing so might piss off someone or break some law someone thought was necessary.

As soon as you remove that right, you have a dictatorship.

scaevola Sat 25-May-13 08:50:29

There was a whole thread about the Icelandic wishful thinking. Their Prime Minister basically said "surely if we can put a man on the moon, we can do this". This is wishing for a unicorn, not a country that is close to any meaningful ban

Especially as Iceland has not published proposals about how such a ban would work. It's not a case of allowing 'nasties' (whether porn or violence) free rein, just because it's on the Internet. It's because of the very nature of the Internet.

Once someone can show actual, workable proposals, the nature of the debate changes. There is of course the example of North Korea, but I don't think there would be much support for what that looks like.

But right now, there is nothing that would outdo what filters offer already, and the prospect of a magic 'nasties be gone button offers only a false sense of security.

And until then, the responsibility cannot be abdicated to the Governemnt to 'do something'.

Children need educatiing about the dangers of the Internet (not just porn), for that is what will equip them for life. I think it's better done in schools, so that every child learns about this. And it needs to be in primary, because in year 7 it is too late.

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