Could teenagers be stopped from looking at porn?

Teenagers with laptop

MPs have warned it's too easy for children to watch online pornography. But could the internet be regulated to protect children? And should it?

Internet freedom campaigner Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

Default filtering is a form of censorship, is not simple and will not work technically. It's also a strange argument for the Conservatives to argue - that the state knows better.

If ISPs and the state decide what children can see, by default - automatically generated lists based on key words - an eight-year-old would probably still be able to find highly unsuitable, upsetting non-adult material, perhaps sites slagging off racial prejudice, perhaps sexist sites, perhaps sites slagging off religion.

The internet freedom campaigner

Internet freedom campaigner Jim Killock, Open Rights Group
  • Default filtering is form of censorship
  • It won't work in practice

And default filters might block lots of things adults want to see - such as political blogs or anti-censorship sites - and the government should not be given powers to censor adults. For example, the BBC wouldn't get banned for using the word "sex" three times on a page, but a blog or small independent site - that is reasonable but not as well-known - might be.

So the default filter would have to be pretty weak, otherwise too many adults would get annoyed as they wouldn't be able to access things and would switch the filter off anyway.

Practically speaking, protecting children has to be done with web browsers and on computers, you can't rely on networks. Firstly there are things like encryption, which online banking uses, which means the network provider can't tell people are talking to their banks, let alone what they are saying. Lots of sites are beginning to turn to encrypting as a way to get round filters.

Secondly, filtering already happens on mobile phones and people can still find pornography. So the nanny state approach will make parents feel safer, will make them think that the problem is taken care of, but default blocking is actually deeply irresponsible because it will fail to protect the most vulnerable children.

Woman looks at Chinese social media website China is one country to curb online access

Parents need to work with their children, make judgements and install software on their computers at home.

When children are very young they can use a white list - so that they can see only BBC children's pages for example - when they get a bit older they can use a slightly larger number of websites, and when they are a teenager, they might decide to only block certain sorts of material, or only black list a few sites.

Parents need to be able to decide what is best for their child, and deciding parents are not capable of learning how to install software is insulting.

Andrea Leadsom MP

It's very important that something drastic is done to change the ability of parents to control how much pornography children can access. At the moment, children are often the most savvy person in a household in terms of IT, and there are multiple points of access to the internet in a household, so even if parents are extremely capable they struggle to always be on top of it.

The campaigning MP

Andrea Leadsom
  • ISPs should block sites and offer adults the option to remove these filters
  • Domain names should be rated

It's not just pornography that is an issue, it's self-harm, anorexia, bomb making sites, suicide sites.

Society has always held the view that it has been a right of parents to protect their children - to decide when and what they eat, when they go to bed etc. But with this "wild west" that has developed, parents are neither capable nor have the time to ensure they can. With internet enabled TVs coming, they will be completely sunk.

Things can be changed in one of two ways. At ISP level, they have the ability to block sites. They should take the initiative, and when adults sign up they should offer a parental filter. There should be a range of choices - from blocking pornography or self-harm, or bomb-making websites. Adults sign up and pay the bills so they should have the ability to change it at their own behest. They could introduce different passports for different family members as well.

The other way that things could be changed is with the move away from and .com, there could be .18 or .explicit or .xxx.

Introducing website terminology would require a structural shift in the industry. There is a whole raft of bodies that monitors obscene content in the non-download world, like the British Board of Film Classification, the watershed, Ofcom, and we could take the view that the internet needs something like that - it could be that a domain would have to pass some kind of rating. Whilst on face of it, it seems like it might be a hugely imposing burden for an organisation, it is exactly what happens if you are a film maker, it's just harder as it has not happened before.

Reg Bailey, from the Mothers Union and author of 2011 report on children's sexualisation

At the moment the default position is that parental controls are switched off. But a lot of parents don't have the confidence or the capability to switch them back on.

The MP Claire Perry wants us to opt in, to make these filters automatic, so that you'd have to opt out to get adult material. But there's a danger that would lead parents to a false sense of security.

The family campaigner

  • Make parents choose porn or no porn
  • Talk to your children

I prefer the active choice proposal, where parents are given a choice when they buy a device. You would be asked when you set it up "do you wish to activate adult or age restricted material?"

You'd need to be an adult to have the pin to make that choice. You can never make filters 100% effective. But the hope is that "active choice" would encourage parents to talk about it with their children. You need to talk about these things to give your children that emotional resilience.

It's about recognising that the porn world is not the real world that relationships are built in. Unfortunately a lot of parents are scared of the online world.

Ladies Day racegoers in platform heels at Aintree Grand National meeting The porn aesthetic is now mainstream, critics say

Of course, tackling internet porn is not enough. Sexting between children is a big issue and emails get uploaded up on to the web.

We know from CEOP that almost a third of paedophile material is self-generated by young people. Sexualised imagery in advertising and on billboards has become the wallpaper of our lives.

Music videos should be age rated, and those age ratings could be embedded so that devices could block them. It's not censorship. You can make whatever pop video you like but it should have an age rating so that parents can put in place the controls they like.

Brooke Magnanti, author of The Sex Myth and Belle de Jour

There seems to be this consensus that porn is bad and we need to do something about. But it's not clear what the bad outcomes are. Is it that kids are having sex earlier?

The fact is that the average age of kids having sex for the first time has stabilised. And the percentage of children having sex has gone down.

The sex writer

Brooke Magnanti
  • Porn is not a problem
  • Women's magazines more harmful

I do understand parents wanting to control what goes on at home. They want help but they don't need a politician saying here's a big off switch for the internet.

A big responsibility for parents is to show their kids what their morals are - and that depends on the family and the age of the children.

The internet has changed the delivery of porn. But I don't think the content has changed much since the early days of the web. One way it has changed is that there are many more "cam girls" working from home and there's a lot more feminist porn celebrating different body types.

There is lots of decent porn out there but people have got used to not paying. The free porn aggressively pushes a lowest common denominator porn.

The first time

  • Average age at first intercourse is 16 for men and women
  • 30% of men and 26% of women aged 16-19 first had sex before the age of 16
  • About 80% of people aged 16-24 used a condom when they first had sex, compared with 40% of those in early 30s

Source: National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)/ Family Planning Association

Advice on sex and relationships

As for the argument that it makes teenage girls want to wax - that view is a little bit outdated. Porn survives because it evolves, and what looks dirty 10 years ago doesn't look dirty anymore.

If I had kids I'd be more worried about the messages they get from women's magazines and advertising. Porn is fantasy, it is up front about the fact it's not realistic. Whereas Glamour and others like it say you can get this body in two weeks. They're telling you a lie.

My worry about Reg Bailey's suggestion is that parents would use that as a way of not having a conversation about porn. You could turn the internet off tomorrow but porn wouldn't go away.

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet

There might be a lack of evidence about the deleterious effect of porn. But most parents know it would be harmful for both boys and girls. It creates this expectation of performance for boys. And for girls the message is that it's all about pleasing the boy.

The parent

Justine Roberts
  • Search engine filters help
  • Impractical to take internet out of bedrooms

The key for parents is to keep the lines of communication open. I wouldn't advocate the Claire Perry approach of a default off switch - there's a danger of believing you have a silver bullet and don't have to discuss porn. But I do think there is something in "active choice", which would ask parents "would you like a filter or not?" I also think Google Safe Search is a good option. It's quite hard to find though - Google could make it far more front and central.

Of course a determined teenager will find porn if they really want to. Where parents want more help is to stop a younger child from stumbling across porn.

Some commentators have said parents shouldn't allow the internet in children's bedrooms and shouldn't give them smartphones. But this isn't practical. Mobile phone is how they live and communicate. All teenagers run their social lives on Facebook. It would be like taking their friends away.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology, LSE

For the vast majority of young people, porn is a rite of passage. But the internet has made porn much more diverse and extreme. And for a vulnerable minority, internet porn can lead you away from normal expectations to more abusive sexual behaviour.

The psychologist

Sonia Livingstone
  • Teens feel under pressure to live up to porn ideal
  • "Active choice" would help parents

The media perception is that all young people look at internet porn. But my survey suggests that only a quarter of 9-16 year-olds have seen sexual images and only 11% on websites.

However there's a genuine worry that porn may make girls feel under pressure in their early to mid-teens to perform various acts like oral sex. Certainly all girls feel judged on their sexual potential.

But I don't think you can blame the internet for that. I wouldn't be surprised if boys found the sexual expectations oppressive too.

The solution would be to have the policy of "active choice" - every ISP subscriber should be faced with a choice.

I don't think we've given that a try. We are used to tools for spam and viruses and we don't panic about them anymore. We need the same for porn. But the Claire Perry approach where adult material is automatically switched off isn't necessary.

Porn is not part of sex education and we don't talk about what's on the internet. Both parents and teachers are often embarrassed to talk about it. Personal Health and Social Education classes would be the logical place to discuss internet porn.

Feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel

People need to recognise that pornography is a depiction of horrific sexual violence, where real women are hurt. It is not just pictures. If we didn't have misogyny, we wouldn't have these depictions of women being hurt.

The feminist

  • Porn is depiction of horrific sexual violence
  • It's about misogyny, not censorship

Contradictory to what pro-porn libertarians say about the feminist position on this, it does not say a man reads porn and goes out to rape women - it has never sought to prove cause and effect. It is about misogyny, and creating an environment in which it becomes a normalised part of popular culture, that is objectionable - that people expect women to engage in humiliation and painful acts.

Pornography online goes far beyond what it was like 10 years ago, it gives people anonymity and they don't need permission to be on a shelf.

State censorship is not the issue. I wouldn't trust the state to censor it, as I don't think they'd see things in the way I do. They might think it's disgusting to have a book which shows women where their clitoris is, which would be perfectly acceptable in my view.

Legislation would help. There needs to be something like incitement to sexual violence, or incitement to violence against women, similar to the incitement to racial hatred legislation.

There has got to be a proper understanding porn is a reflection of misogyny and these pictures are in a sense a crime as somebody has been hurt.

Andrew Murray, professor of law at the LSE

You could cut the UK off by building a massive firewall. Technically you can do this, it costs a lot but countries like Saudi Arabia and China have very expensive firewalls to keep out obscene material.

The legal expert

  • Firewalls are expensive and don't work
  • Educating parents is best

But what you find with the Great Firewall of China is the hackers and activists end up spending all their time building routes through it.

The legal situation in the UK is that it's illegal to possess images of child abuse and the government has made ISPs take action on this.

Some years ago the government said they'd regulate if internet service providers didn't do it themselves. If you're surfing and find a young person abused you can report it and the authorities will have a look and blacklist it.

For the general populace it does mask a lot of child abuse. But imagine doing that for all porn images. Most porn websites are domiciled in the United States and the First Amendment protects freedom of speech - porn involving adults is not deemed obscene.

And where do you draw the line? It would be a brave UK lawmaker that would say this isn't freedom of speech it's pornography. With someone like Robert Mapplethorpe [the photographer] it's getting very problematic - is it art or porn?

In the past we regulated the supply of porn using the Obscene Publications Act. You could only get pornography via a few routes. The problem with the internet is that any attempt to build border controls like firewalls would be very expensive, probably won't work for those people who are technically literate, and is legally problematical.

Start Quote

If you block the word 'rape' you may be blocking access to rape crisis centres”

End Quote

The "opting in" proposal might be legally possible. But any law would have to be compliant with the Human Rights Act's right to free expression. It it was seen as onerous it could be deemed disproportionate.

And there are technical issues with blocking certain material. If you block the word "rape" you may be blocking access to rape crisis centres. A computer can't contextualise.

Legislation is not a good option, it's a very blunt instrument. The best way to tackle this is to educate the parents. Sometimes they don't realise that social networking sites contain a lot of sexualised content put there by children.

And then there's sexting. Parents should maybe look at the pictures coming back and forth on their children's phones. It's different to reading someone's diary as a diary is kept for oneself. The world has changed dramatically and we're trying to catch up.

Johnny Anglais, porn performer and former teacher

Viewing the act of sex is not damaging, it's very normal and might even be helpful for young people. Yes, there are certain types of pornography like rape that are wrong but the principle of seeing people having sex is not damaging.

The porn actor

  • Viewing sex is normal
  • A more mature approach to sex is necessary

The problem is in Britain we see sex as something we can't talk about and if we do it's in a comedic, immature way.

And yet after eating, drinking and oxygen sexual gratification is one of our essential needs. The Dutch have far less teen pregnancy because parents talk to their children about sex. So the problem is not porn, it's our maturity about how we deal with sex.

Although I don't believe porn is a problem, I accept the laws of the land. And it's currently the case that children shouldn't watch porn.

So parents need to be more savvy if they want to control their children's access to porn. No child needs a smartphone - give them a basic mobile.

Reporting by Tom de Castella and Vanessa Barford



This entry is now closed for comments

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  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    "Feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel"

    Sorry, but hahahaahhaahhahahahahahh, worst comment i've seen on a bbc article for a LONG time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Proponents of "love" v "lust" argument....Sometimes Love IS Lust! Isn`t there just a bit of it in the way grown adults enjoy sex with the opposite sex? The Prudes will out but normal people will just enjoy things as they are without a thought! More scope for more BANS in my opinion.
    Pressure or Action groups should get out more!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    News item 1: children are not learning computing in depth, just applications. 2: children watch porn. Solution: ban porn. They will learn lots by learning how to work around the filters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    @322. leckster3000

    "Porn is not reality, nor is it healthy. I was 13 when I first seen porn and I can still remember the images vividly"

    So damaging was it that you don't even tell us the harm it did to you!

    I think such opinion is mostly the result of ignorance and small-mindedness. Where is the evidence that banning it is essential or that it would be effective?

  • rate this

    Comment number 350. - Not work safe but well within you tubes policies. 7.5 million views and filmed using a very popular computer game. It's a Broadway musical song, parental controls wont stop them seeing that and singing it at the dinner table.

    Start teaching your kids and stop coddling them. There's a lot more material out there than I think even the experts know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    So basically:
    Parents - Please do our jobs for us, because we want the Internet as a free babysitter/childminder so we don't have to look after our own kids.

    Feminists - Porn is bad! Ban it! Never mind freedom of speech and expression, Porn is bad. Well unless its naked men then its fine but thats not a double standard honest!

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    Yes,it's not rocket science, do not buy them a laptop until they can buy it themselves, i e when they are working?

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Fuss about nothing, as a middle-class teenaged boy 30+ years ago my friends and I all had access to porn admittedly it was magazines with the odd super8 thrown in, and don't forget "sneaking" into the local fleapit to see deepthroat

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    The survey where only 1/4 9-16 year olds have seen sexual images is a joke! more like 9/10 id say...! Parents need to be realistic. it will happen, the best way it education, not prohibition! you can have sex at 16 but not watch it, surely it should at least be the other way around? the only reason are 'de sensitised' is because they are thrown in at the deep and. parents are too scared to talk...

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    If we didn't keep making out that watching sex is something that must be banned, kids wouldn't get so obsessed with it. Watching is much safer than doing. And anyway, once they all go blind they won't be able to watch it any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    To be fair to Julie B, and bring some balance, I actually agree with the spirit of her words. The vast majority of porn on the popular sites *is* very misogynistic as she described, and the worry that men come to see this as the "normal" way to treat women is a gen. worry. To those who poo-poo the idea, maybe *you're* the proof? Do you not see the harm as you now think this is acceptable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    for a start julie bindal's view is not a 'feminist' veiw. it's an extreme personal opinion. women enjoy sex too and this includes making porn.

    secondly, its the parents problem not the government. kids can watch all sorts of rubbish they're not supposed to on the net just like they can talk about stuff they shouldnt when parents arent there.
    its called growing up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    There isn't a firewall in existence that could separate a computer-literate horny teenager from the wealth of porn available on the internet.

    And why should it? If you are a strong moral presence in your child's life from day one, then what is there to fear from internet porn, apart from over-development of the forearm?
    Porn can be a GOOD thing, Ms Bindel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Who here remembers programmes like Wish you were here, or the Channel 4 banned/red film seasons on late at night? I do and had a TV in my room and stayed up late to watch it. Please tell me the difference between what I did in the 90s and now? The really nasty stuff is often hidden and access controled lest it be shut down by the authorities. But this is a debate article and it has worked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    Porn helped teach me all my best moves, it shouldn't be viewed as obscene as thats a very subjective word.

    I think if you are a responsible parent then just make sure you know what your kids are looking at but ultimately most intelligent people, teenagers or not are fully aware porn is not real life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    Perhaps English prudishness can be helped if we learn from Sweden etc how they make the teaching of their kids more matter of fact, and fear free!
    Britain is much less free than it was in 1990.
    A society where media as a matter of course WARN viewers of matters of no consequence breeds alarmist and timid citizens.
    Society generates stupidity by being afraid FOR its citizens. Choices are individual

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    I agree sex remains a taboo word and we need to allow the opportunity for young people to have an environment where they can discuss sex, with adults who won't freak out.

    But porn implies women, in general, are a commodity you can use how you want then move on. This is unhelpful for young people going into relationships.

    Porn also creates an unhealthy fantasy life which is unrealistic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    I don't blame internet sites, i blame shoddy parents who allow no safeguards in their homes to stop children looking at things that are not suitable. Same with parents who buy 18 rated games like COD for their kids, or parents who allow their kids to watch 18 rated films. You cannot blame over 18 sites for parents who are lazy and uninterested in their kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    @ 326.Tamar

    Can you please explain why you deem porn to be filth and why you approve of the state becoming the moral compass for children?

    Do you see sex in general as filth or are you just a little lonely and don't get any attention whatsoever?

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Porn is not reality, nor is it healthy.

    Neither are soaps but its alright for children to watch those and see story lines about rape, domestic abuse, murder, organized crime, underage sex, racial abuse, homophobia, drug abuse, alcohol abuse..... Shall I continue....

    Or the fact that there are free view sex chat channels which a child can quite easily turn to or even call.


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