New measures needed to help protect children, and to understand their experiences of pornography* online
Many children in the UK are seeing explicit sexual images using internet or mobile devices and filtering services are limited, says a new report commissioned by the Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In the report, a panel of experts**, including Professor Joanna R Adler and Dr Miranda A H Horvath from Forensic Psychological Services at Middlesex University, sets out the scale of the problem and possible measures to mitigate risks. Published alongside a new government consultation setting out potential strategies to reduce such exposure, the panel’s report sets out the many ways in which children and young people can encounter online pornography. It also points out that technical fixes, such as filtering, will always be imperfect and that there is an obvious mismatch between the regulation currently governing distribution of pornography in the offline context and its equivalent for online material.
The panel was led by Dr Victoria Nash of the Oxford Internet Institute and they reviewed available UK and international data, highlighting the limitations in estimating numbers of children who are accessing porn, given the ethical and practical challenges of studying children’s experiences on this issue. The most common means for under-18s to access explicit sexual content have been via TV, films, magazines and books which may now be viewed digitally as well as via traditional routes. Likely online routes include video and photo-sharing sites or pop-up ads and social networks.
The report considers evidence of children sharing sexual images via mobile phones or the internet. The images children share may be found or ‘self-generated’ with ‘sexting’ studies showing that children appear to create their own images although why they share them, is a matter of some dispute. The authors suggest social and educational interventions are needed, and point out that enhanced technical constraints will be more effective when young people have come across pornography accidentally rather than when they deliberately seek it out.
The various routes of access to pornography all provide their own challenges. One UK study in the report identifies pop-up adverts as the most common source of sexual images among the 13-14 year age group. The report says one approach could be a greater use of ad–blocking tools in households, but this is problematic for content-producers who rely on advertising revenue. Apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat, both used by large numbers of children, especially those in their early teens, are also difficult to regulate. Such apps allow users to discuss anything, and share photos or videos without leaving a digital trail but the minimum age requirements are not enforced. The report notes that this direct messaging may be a way that children, particularly older groups, share sexual images, possibly believing that such images will not be permanent, even though they are relatively easy for the recipient to keep. The mass of real time content downloaded onto popular entertainment sources such as YouTube is also highlighted as an area of concern, due to the sheer amount of new content uploaded every minute which is ‘virtually impossible to moderate’, according to the report.
To date, most interventions in the UK aimed at stopping minors accessing potentially harmful content (that is legally produced for the adult market) have been voluntary. However, there are obvious gaps where government might intervene, such as in bringing the responsibilities of commercial online pornographers into line with those in the offline world. It also discusses whether schools should have a bigger role in educating children about pornography, asking whether the topic should be included in the curriculum in order to build children’s resilience, and make a clear distinction between real-life relationships and the ‘fiction’ of porn. It is also vital to take into account the wider sexualisation of popular culture whereby children encounter explicit sexual images in films, television, music videos and games.
Professor Adler commented: ‘Pornography that is legal for adults to view is always going to be accessed by some young people. We should encourage responsible behaviour by the industry to try to set up reliable routes to age verification and we need to have meaningful education to help young people properly discuss sex and relationships. However, we need also to respect young people’s choices and development and should be wary of over- blocking.’
* The report covers the viewing of pornography (rather than illegal, extreme pornography). In the report, pornography is defined as sexually explicit media that are primarily intended to sexually arouse the audience. The definition of ‘children’ covers under-18s although much of the research covers just a portion of this age group. The research looks at materials using the internet and, or mobile technologies (rather than just ‘online’) as it covers materials transmitted from one children to another using a phone or other mobile device without requiring an internet connection.
**The authors are Dr Victoria Nash (Oxford Internet Institute); Professor Joanna R. Adler (Forensic Psychological Services, Middlesex University); Dr Miranda A. H. Horvath (Forensic Psychological Services, Middlesex University); Professor Sonia Livingstone (LSE and EU Kids Online); Dr Cicely Marston (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine); Dr Gareth Owen (University of Portsmouth); and Dr Joss Wright (Oxford Internet Institute).