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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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Smudging Sat 25-May-13 10:55:46

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

scaevola Sat 25-May-13 11:11:29

When someone, anyone, can show proposals that could work I'd be the first to support it.

Until then, it's like wishing for world peace. Saying that you cannot legislate for that doesn't make you pro-war. It means you look at what is possible, and build on that.

I don't want to leave children vulnerable for the years it would take to develop and impose imperfect centralised measures. It's far more important to educate everyone now.

BasilBabyEater Sat 25-May-13 11:11:33

"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."

I've blocked porn in my home.

I have no idea about the homes my children go to though. Or the phones their friends pass around.

When they're under secondary school age, you can vet the sort of homes they go to and make a judgement about whether you want them to visit those homes.

When they're in secondary school, it becomes increasingly unreasonable and controlling to forbid them to go to xyz's house - they have the right to choose their own friends.

Telling parents to control their kid's access to porn is like Canute telling the sea to roll back, it's just silly.

I agree with this:

"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."

And that goes for soft porn as well - we shouldn't have to avoid supermarkets to stop our toddlers seeing women's arses at their eye level.

FloraFox Sat 25-May-13 11:23:09

Tee

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

You have no idea about the legal enforcement of censorship if you would make such a statement. They are all censorship because they penalise "free speech". The distinction you make is illusory. All laws seek to prevent behaviour by deterrence ie penalising acts that have occurred to deter others from carrying out the same acts - that is censorship as much, if not more so, than instituting methods to prevent the speech in the first place.

It's a very arbitrary distinction you are trying to make. But since your position is quite ridiculous, it's not really surprising.

Tee2072 Sat 25-May-13 12:17:51

Whatever.

I still maintain, and will until my dying day, that censorship, of any sort is wrong. And always will be.

Sorry if you feel that you need the government to tell you what to see, think and feel.

I don't.

laverneandshirl Sat 25-May-13 12:43:29

I think a lot of people commenting on this stuff have no bloody idea how bad things are and live in a fucking bubble.

These are criminal acts being distributed and available to see very very easily.

Complete opt-in is the only sane way - it is not censorship but it is a default setting which communicates the message that this is not the norm - and it really isn't. Yes, there may be tech glitches but the message is the same.

We need to demonstrate a collective societal stance against sexual violence and degradation for the mental health and well being of all citizens. The law enshrines physical safety for all already - what's the bloody difference?

Show me the dictatorial nature of an opt-in system????

Well havng thought we were very clever setting up parental controls on our home system we fell at first hurdle when DS tried to google his favorite football team. Arsenal. So I completely see that the opt in scheme might not work very well.

But I completely agree that something needs to be done. Our children are becoming sexualised far too early. Boundaries are being pushed with every music video that the likes of Rihanna etc release. The current Daft Punk song which will apparently be the anthem of the summer, is obviously about sex. Why is this necessary? When did all of this overly sexual content start to be shoved in our faces? Obviously this is somewhat separate to the porn issue but not too much.

I have an 11 year old DS. We try to keep an eye on what he is exposed to. It's easy at home. But what about at friends houses? A woman phoned into Jeremy Vine the other day on the same subject. Her 8 year old DD was at a sleepover with some other 8 year olds and they saw porn on a laptop.

I really don't want my son seeing hideous violent pornographic images and thinking that that is a normal relationship.

So I will watch this thread with interest.

Sheila Sat 25-May-13 13:01:17

I do so agree Laverne. My 13 yo DS has been shown porn on his friends' phones in the school playground. He's deeply troubled by this, so it's not just girls who this affects.

sadly, his school doesn't seem very interested.

scaevola Sat 25-May-13 13:03:17

I'd have no problem with an opt-in system that works, and offers actual protection, not an illusion of it.

Show me one.

Tee - how is it censorship if you can choose to opt in? It's not being banned. Just put in a locked box as it were but you can have the key.

BasilBabyEater Sat 25-May-13 13:46:03

His school should be interested Sheila.

The NSPCC is quite clear that showing children pornography, is in of itself an act of child abuse.

If the school is facilitating child abuse on its premises by not addressing this issue, it will come a cropper.

A letter to the governors might help.

BasilBabyEater Sat 25-May-13 13:47:06

Yeah if I choose not to have porn being beamed into my house, then, wah, that's censorship?

Righto.

hmm

grimbletart Sat 25-May-13 14:29:25

Of course opt in is not censorship. If it could be achieved it would be great. If you want to buy something you either go to a shop and ask for it or order it off amazon or some such.

If there are people who need a porn fix then they should be able to order it just like any other commodity. We should not have to have the stuff appearing on our computers when we google a simple word.

scaevola Sat 25-May-13 14:55:13

As I asked above, can anyone show an actual system that does that?

Clue: no. No such system exists. There is no use crying out for a unicorn. Especially when we already have horses which already do the same job.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

libertarianj Sat 25-May-13 16:02:03

Totally agree Tee and Scaevelo and nicely summarised plentyofpube
Porn filters aren't going to work,unless you want to censor practically everything.
If the government did go down this opt in route i reckon the vast majority of people would still go for the unfiltered option rather than have to put with a very broken internet, regardless of their porn preferences.

This blog entry comes accross as a daily mail esque scarmongering attempt which has simply cherry picked some bad cases and porn is being used as a scapegoat for persons bad behaviour/ poor education.

laverneandshirl Sat 25-May-13 16:07:06

Can't we put pressure on ISP's to develop something which allows individual sites to be 'unblocked'?

I.e. opt in to block everything and then opt in to individual sites on a site by site basis determined by the user as you search for things e.g. Arsenal/Breast cancer charities.

Remember ppl don't have to use the system as they can deliberately opt out.

I'm sure a lot of ppl with kids would put up with the minor inconvenience.

scaevola Sat 25-May-13 16:48:25

It would be better to use device based filters for that, lavernandshirl, as they already exist and of course stay in place if you eg go on holiday and use a hotel connection.

OrangeFootedScrubfowl Sat 25-May-13 17:02:37

As a child of about 8/9, I came across a family member's porn collection, which was mainly violent rape based. Being pre internet, it was just prose, no pictures.
This experience, and how it affected me for many years to come, makes me believe that graphic and disturbing porn images are a terrifying threat to our children and I truly despair when I consider how all their future relationships could be shaped by what they see in the world they are growing up in.

FloraFox Sat 25-May-13 17:06:28

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.

That is the political analysis of a 10 year old.

ecclesvet Sat 25-May-13 17:14:06

I think if they somehow managed to achieve the impossible and develop a system that accurately blocked only pornography, then you should have to opt-in to the blocking, not opt-in to the uncensored Internet.

ecclesvet Sat 25-May-13 17:19:55

When I was at school, the 'parental controls' software blocked any racist/sexist words, and blocked pictures which were largely skin colour.

It completely hampered everyone's work on Othello and To Kill A Mockingbird, and you'd better hope that the site you wanted to load didn't have a picture of anything skin coloured (not to mention it only considered 'skin tone' to be pinkish-white).

I wouldn't trust the government to put in place anything better to be honest.

Sausageeggbacon Sat 25-May-13 17:48:14

Well don't think Iceland will be interested in going further with this now as the government changed in the recent elections.

Serious the average 13 year old can bypass security if they want to, I know mine can. Even with the opt in you will not be sure what kids are seeing as they can probably get round it and as has been said you have no control over kids friends whose parents have opted in.

So likely to cost a fortune, likely not to work and even after all that people will still have the same worries. Prefer the idea that SRE changes to RSE so the emphasis is put on the relationship aspect in education as recommended in the report.

Smudging Sat 25-May-13 18:26:25

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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