Over the weekend there has been significant press reporting about child sexual abuse images and online pornography. This week David Cameron announced there will be new legislation making 'rape pornography' illegal. Beyond the accusations of censorship and an industry reluctant to engage, the realities are more subtle, the challenges more complex and the need for good education more acute.
You can read the full speech online here.
All of us, as sensible citizens would agree that child sexual images on the Internet are abuse. All efforts to tackle this form of abuse, like all other forms of abuse must be addressed. It is my experience that politicians, young people, parents, police, children's services and industry agree on this.
The more difficult challenge is understanding how best to protect children and young people from the pernicious effects of online pornography that they don't want to access, whilst recognising that technological solutions - filters - trying to do this may also prevent young people accessing vital information online that is both educational and/or advice and support for those experiencing difficulty.
Brook, and other youth agencies have already experienced being 'blocked' in the past because our content has been deemed unacceptable. As a result our site has been placed on a 'black list' by a machine sometimes taking a long time to unblock, and young people not receiving vital information whilst this takes weeks to resolve. Solutions must be proportionate. Efforts to protect young people from harm must not create more harm than good through unintended impact.
Mr Cameron's speech did make reference to some of the points I highlight in this blog post, and I am emphasising where extra special care has to be taken.
Some of those unintended impacts are a narrative that all pornography is bad, and all viewing of pornography leads to harm. The evidence is less clear than this. Our experience at Brook is that pornography is undoubtedly part of an increasing source of education for young people. That is worrying in the absence of trusted, reliable sources of education - parents, schools, youth and community organisations. See this article from WAtoday (Western Australia's news website) which highlights research on the impact of the lack of sex and relationships education and driving young people to look online and at pornography for information about what sex is like. And we also know from our experience at Brook that most young people can distinguish between the fantasy as provided by pornography and the reality of real life relationships. It is our job to make sure they do.
The second unintended impact is a narrative that depicts technology as bad and largely ignores the positive benefits, including the fact that young people access tremendous amounts of information, advice and support via the Internet that can often quite literally be a life saver.
Technology is of course expected to provide the solution and the answer. Yet we know that it can't and it won't alone. And that is why I worry that in all this tough on industry rhetoric there isn't a stronger accompanying message which emphasises the important role of education. The important role of parents, of schools and of communities in teaching about online safety, and about using the Internet well to benefit from all the brilliant help and advice it can offer.
Much more emphasis could be placed on school based sex and relationships education as part of the solution - a universal entitlement that forms part of our duty to safeguard, protect and empower young people. So my advice to Mr Cameron is be tough on industry yes, and please work with them to use their capabilities and resources well. I would also advise him to demonstrate he will do all he can by being tough on his Ministry for Education as they conclude their National Curriculum consultation which closes on 8 August. The PSHE Association has written to Ministers with recommendations about how to reflect a strong commitment to PSHE as evidenced in documents from Home Office, DH and indeed DfE.
A simple statement in the National Curriculum from government about the vital role of PSHE in protecting children and young people such as the one below could be a game changer and demonstrate he means business - 'It is expected that all schools will deliver Personal, Social, Health, and Economic education to meet the statutory requirements to support children and young people's spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and to prepare children and young people to live, grow and learn in an ever changing, fast paced and technologically driven global economy.'
I know any action to improve school based sex and relationships education coupled with technological solutions and support for parents will be supported by the absolute majority including organisations such as MumsNet, the Office of the Children's Commissioner, the PSHE Association, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and the Sex Education Forum.
Finally, my advice would be make sure the organisations who work with children AND young people are involved - and be clear with different age groups come different realities - and most importantly ensure young people's views constantly drive government thinking and policy proposals. We know at Brook they have a lot of ideas and thoughts about online pornography - some similar and some more nuanced because they are living their lives now. The quote below from a young person involved with Brook shows just how much they have to offer:
"...I think instead of stopping young people watching porn, it is an inevtiabilty which will occur. I think the focus of the debate should be around teachig young people, the differences between porn and reality, so that this doesn't give off unrealistic images to younger people about how they should look or act sexually, there should be emphasis on teaching the rights and wrongs of vewing different types of porn."