Young people should be legally entitled to sex education to make them aware of the dangers of sexual exploitation and abuse, says a new report commissioned by five leading child protection charities.
"I am far more concerned about boys' access to pornographic magazines, videos and computers than I am about the content of girls' magazine agony columns, " said Liz Kelly, main author of the report compiled by her team from the University of North London. She also called for teachers to encourage teenagers to become "media-literate" so they would be more aware of complex issues of sexuality.
The report, Splintered Lives, contains harrowing case histories showing how children are abused in this country and abroad. Child prostitution and abuse linked to pornography are both increasing in the UK, it says.
The latest study of police, social service departments and teams from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children revealed 211 cases of organised child sexual abuse over three years involving 1,500 children. But the society believes that the true figure is nearer 1,000 cases.
The authors fear that young people's knowledge of sex is gleaned from pornographic magazines and videos rather than sex education.
ChildLine, for example, interviewed 78 children over six months who talked about pornography. Of these 32 talked about sexual abuse linked to being shown pornographic magazines or videos or being involved in the production of abusive videos. And they are concerned at the emergence of computer pornography, particularly its availability in schools. New technology means discs can sell for Pounds 1.
Valerie Howarth, director of ChildLine, said that although the report took an international view, "we must recognise the extent of problems in the UK. Maybe we are slow in addressing issues such as sex tourism abroad because we are able to close our eyes to the way pornography is used in child sex abuse in our own backyard. Millions of children are affected by commercial abuse; it is a worldwide phenomenon of frightening proportions."
The report, which published today, also looks at the latest research and statistics, gives the legal background and looks at some initiatives to protect children.
Splintered Lives: the sexual exploitation of children in the context of children's rights and child protection, is available at Pounds 12 from Barnardo's policy and development unit, Tanners Lane, Barkingside, Ilford, Essex 1G6 1QG.