Porn is everywhere. And it's time we did something about it

24th May 2013 at 11:58
Sue Berelowitz, deputy children's commissioner for England, discusses the findings of the report Basically.porn is everywhere

Views and opinions about the impact on children of viewing pornography are polarised. There are those who say pornography is immensely damaging and measures must be taken to prevent children from accessing it, while, at the other extreme, some say that it never harmed them and the worries are nonsense. This camp often refers to having viewed magazines such as Mayfair and Playboy in their youth and that this is simply part of growing up.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner is midway through a two-year inquiry into the sexual exploitation of children in the context of gangs and groups. The first year focused on prevalence and, following extensive data and information collection including first-hand accounts from victims and the professionals working with them, established that in the 14 months commencing August 2010, 2,409 children were known victims of this form of abuse. In total, based on known warning signs, 16,500 children were identified as being at high risk of sexual exploitation. Both of these figures, shocking as they are, are an undercounting, as we did not receive data from all of the authorities and agencies involved in supporting victims.

The first year findings begged a number of serious questions, including that of consent. It was apparent from the accounts we heard that boys often considered they had absolute licence to have sex any time, with anybody, in any place, and in whatever way they so wished. This included requiring girls to submit to multiple perpetrator rape and other sexual assaults.

The second issue was the use of pornography. It was mentioned many times, including by some 14-year-old boys who had anally raped an 11-year-old over several days. Their witness statements record them saying that "it was like being in a porn movie".

To help inform the inquiry, we commissioned research into children and young people's understanding of consent. The results will be published in the autumn. We also considered it essential to throw some light on the issue of the impact of viewing pornography on children. Research in this area is fraught with ethical difficulties. It is clearly not possible to show children pornographic materials, including extreme and violent images, and see what impact this has. However, given the burgeoning use of internet enabled technology, including smartphones and tablets and the ease of access these afford to extreme violent and sadistic pornographic imagery, it is essential that we seek to understand better whether viewing these images affects children, as there is no doubt that many of them are doing so.

We commissioned a review of research evidence to establish what is already known about the impact of pornography on children and identify the key questions that still need to be asked. The review was undertaken by a consortium of four universities led by Dr Miranda Horvath at Middlesex University. The team scrutinised more than 40,000 UK and international papers from the past 30 years, with a detailed analysis of over 430. This yielded invaluable evidence of what is reliably known and of what can be less confidently stated. In addition, the researchers identified clear actions that should be taken and these have formed recommendations to the government and other agencies.

There is no doubt that from a young age children are accessing pornography. There are, with some exceptions, notable gender differences in that boys tend to access pornography by choice, whereas girls are exposed to it reluctantly. Accessibility has changed dramatically with the use of the internet and social networking sites. Pornographic material, including of an extreme and violent nature in still and moving images, is but a few clicks away. Children do not need to be at home sitting at a computer to watch pornography; the advent of smartphones and tablets means they can and do view pornography anywhere and at any time.

There is no evidence to show causality; that if a child looks at violent pornographic images then he will commit violent sexual acts. But there is strong evidence that there is a correlation between viewing extreme and violent material and those who carry out such acts. The research also showed that pornography affects children's views of sex and sexuality, body attitudes and their thresholds regarding risk.

A group of inner-city 16- and 17-year-olds told the researchers that "porn is everywhere". They were not happy about this and want adults to step in and take measures to protect them. The research evidence shows compellingly that there is cause to be concerned. Further work needs to be done to understand causation, but the immediate pressing issue is to find a way to limit children's access to pornography and act to build their resilience.

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