At long last there is a reality check going on about the dangers children face on the internet from pornography. We read with horror of children as young as eight admitting to pornography addiction, or the 12-year-old boy who raped a nine year old girl because he wanted to 'feel grown up' after viewing explicit images. As with so many other things in life, it has had to reach crisis-point before people begin sitting up and taking notice.
Only last week the deputy children's commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, told MPs that online porn "is turning children into sex attackers, that the young act out depraved scenes they see on the web and there isn't a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited."
This came in the same week that Wikipedia's co-founder Mike Sanger, disclosed that "Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn you can imagine," "while being heavily used by children."
The awful thing is that once children see these images they are imprinted on their brains. Dr William Struthers, a neuroscientist and expert in sexual arousal who researches the impact of pornography on young people, said, ="You can't "un-see" something. These images are not easily erasable and become almost tattooed on the cortex. It is a powerful shock to the system." He describes his research in his book, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain.
In November 2010, Safermedia's Parliamentary Conference on the harm that pornography does heard evidence of growing exposure to internet porn and concomitant harm to children and adolescents from several expert speakers, including Pamela Paul, US journalist and author of Pornified.
Since then we have been running our Block Porn Campaign which backs Claire Perry MP's ideas for making the internet safer for children. The recommendations of her parliamentary inquiry (supported by over 60 MPs) into online child protection are the way forward. These include a proposal for a formal consultation on the introduction of an opt-in network-level filtering system for all internet accounts.
The default setting for pornography would be 'off', and it would be restored only after strict age verification for those over 18. This therefore is not censorship, despite howls of protest from some quarters about freedom of speech, and offers the best protection for children.
Network level filters are particularly important as most parents are just not up to speed with the pace of technological change or the type of hardcore, violent and abusive material their children can now access. With the best will in the world many struggle to install device level filters and are lagging behind their tech-savvy children. The problem will only get worse with the proliferation of the latest must have smartphones being used by children.
So far TalkTalk (with a female CEO) is the only ISP which is delivering a package that filters at network level, although the default is still on and parents have to choose to block pornographic content. TalkTalk have also recently decided to extend this service to all their existing customers, not just new ones as is the case with the other large ISPs such as BT, Virgin Media and Sky who are not catching the 70% of existing customers.
Sue Berelowitz has backed the proposal for ISP level filters with an 'opt in' for pornography; Mike Sanger is calling for Wikipedia to install a filter to protect children and now Louis Theroux has also added his voice to the need for network level filters. So pressure is mounting on the ISPs to do the right thing and put children's safety and well-being ahead of profits.