Education, Not Censorship, Is The Key To Addressing Children's Access To Porn

14/09/2016 17:08
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There are 25 million porn sites online - one for every two and half people in the UK. As volume and ease of access has grown, so has political hysteria around it. Legislative tinkering over the past few years means people now have to contact their Internet Service Provider (ISP) to opt-in to accessing porn, and certain sexual practices are banned from material produced in the UK. The latest frenzy in protecting the purity of our surfing habits is in the Digital Economy Bill, which includes a measure to introduce age verification on porn sites. Whilst a response on the issue of underage access to porn is needed, censorship is a blunt and ineffective solution.

The majority of young people first see porn when they are under the age of 14. This is clearly disturbing, especially given the unhealthy attitudes towards sex and relationships that it can generate. A recent Girlguiding report highlighted that over 70% of girls and young women surveyed thought pornography normalised aggressive or violent behaviour towards women, a sentiment echoed in this week's Women & Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment & sexual violence in schools.

For the vast majority of MPs debating the Digital Economy Bill this week, porn was paid for when they were young. Today a significant proportion of it is available for free: YouPorn, RedTube, Xhamster, Pornhub - the list goes on. With no need to register, or provide credit card details to access sites, age verification will be difficult. Problems with enforcing age verification on free to use sites can be seen with the likes of Facebook and Snapchat - both theoretically require users to be 13 or over, however this is easy to circumnavigate, and regularly is: more than 75% of children between 10 and 12 years old have social media accounts despite being underage.

Aside from the effectiveness of provider controls, more and more sexual content is generated by young people themselves and shared on social networking and messaging platforms. The NSPCC estimates 1 in 7 young people have taken semi-naked or naked pictures, with more that 50% going on to share them with others. One teacher in North London revealed to me that cases of pupils sharing sexual images or videos of themselves occurred on an almost weekly basis at her school - with children as young as 12 involved. As more of these messaging services are becoming encrypted by default, this activity is also becoming more difficult to police.

An expert panel reporting to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport highlighted the opportunity that sex and relationship education (SRE) could play in equipping young people to better understand pornography; the Women & Equalities Committee has also called for the subject to be made a statutory requirement. Despite the breadth of political support to make SRE compulsory - not to mention calls from parents, teachers and charities - all efforts to move it to a statutory footing were blocked during Cameron's premiership.

In the UK, very basic elements of sex education are compulsory from age 11 but there is no requirement for primary schools (beyond the very basics required for the science curriculum), academies or free schools to teach it. Parents also have the right to withdraw their children from any classes that are provided.

Where SRE is provided, the quality and relevance of it is often poor. The most recent government guidance on SRE was published in 2000 - before Pornhub, YouPorn, Facebook or Snapchat were created. 2015's Girlguiding report revealed that less than half of girls surveyed were taught about consent, rape or understanding what is good and bad behaviour within relationships. Just 25% learnt about pornography. In this vacuum, porn - perversely enough - is filling the information gap, with some children using it as a means to learn more about sex.

This is where the crux of the issue lies. How can we hope to protect children in an increasingly complex communications age, if we don't give them the information and tools to understand the content they are likely to become aware of, if not be directly exposed to? In evidence to the Women & Equalities Committee, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said: "it is completely unrealistic to expect that we can prevent young people seeing online porn", whilst adding that there is an opportunity to help young people better understand it and healthy relationships.

Theresa May could be a much needed breath of fresh air to the government's approach on sex education: as Home Secretary it is rumoured she was supportive of bids to make the subject compulsory. With a wafer-thin majority, and battle ahead with Brexit, she may not be willing to use up political capital on revisiting it. If the government is rightly serious about protecting children from porn though, this cannot be the case.