Generation X-rated owns the net: can politicians stop children watching porn?

Never has it been so easy for young children to watch violent pornography. Can politicians who grew up in the analogue age do anything about it?

Illustration by Julien Picaud.
Illustration by Julien Picaud.

Most British children growing up in the age of the internet will never go hungry for information. They may hear older generations talk about a time before search engines and social networks, but imagining what that was like will be as hard for them as it is for their parents to picture life before electricity.

They will never have a question burning in their imagination and nowhere to ask it, although that doesn’t mean the answers they find will be good ones. Nor will they know solitude, in the sense of lacking contact with other people. They will still know loneliness. The value of a relationship isn’t measured by the volume of messages sent.

There is one subject above all where children on the cusp of adulthood have the most insatiable appetite for knowledge. It is the same subject where the profusion of content online has been greatest and where quantity correlates least with quality of information. That subject is sex.

There is no reliable figure for the proportion of the internet given over to pornography. Estimates vary from 4 per cent to 40 per cent; the spread depends on how you add up web pages. But no one disputes that the briefest excursion into the digital red-light zone can expose extreme scenes of violent, degrading sexual acts. Nor is it much in doubt that children as young as ten are finding these images, either by chance or by deliberately exploring. The days when teenage kicks were eked out of tattered copies of Penthouse, exchanged like contraband in the playground, seem prelapsarian by comparison.

It is normal for parents to be ignorant of the sexual subculture of teenagers and so to fear it. Meanwhile, technology vastly increases children’s capacity for secrecy and their vulnerability to exploitation. The bedroom that was once an emblem of childhood sanctuary, now equipped with a laptop and wireless connection, becomes a portal to the darkest experiences that adulthood can conjure.

“We spend a lot of time as parents worrying about what our children eat, what schools to get them into, how much homework they’re doing. For some reason we seem to worry much less about their digital life,” Claire Perry, the Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire who advises David Cameron on childhood and internet safety, told me. “Some parents are in digital oblivion. They have no idea what their children are doing with computers and phones.”

The topic slips easily into moral panic. There is nothing new in one generation looking in terror at the changing sexual mores of its children. When the novel took off as a literary form in the 18th century, it was suspected of ruining young girls, because – unlike the theatre – its thrills could be indulged in private chambers. Parents whose stiff stoicism was fashioned by the privations of the Second World War could not understand why their children craved the raucous indulgence of rock’n’roll.

Yet, given the sheer volume and intensity of trade in sex as a commodity online, it is hard to deny that something quite unprecedented is happening. It is as if the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s led us from the beach into the water and now, suddenly, the coastal shelf has fallen away and we are drowning in porn.

How much of this stuff are children seeing? A much-cited YouGov survey from 2008 suggested that 27 per cent of boys aged 14-17 looked at sexual images every week and 5 per cent looked every day. A 2005 study by researchers at the London School of Economics found that one in eight children aged between nine and 19 had at some stage seen a porn site with a violent element. It is difficult to be more precise because everyone lies about their porn consumption and the definitions are slippery. When does a sex scene get degrading? Even soft porn contains pernicious signals about power, consent and respect. A more recent study for the University of Ark - ansas found that 90 per cent of mass-market video material contained elements of verbal or physical aggression towards women.

I met Perry for coffee in the vast glass atrium of parliament’s Portcullis House annexe. She spelled out her concern that a generation is learning about sex from sources that strip away humanity and celebrate cruelty. It is, she argues, distorting perceptions of what it means to be a woman, when girls are already subjected to intense and contradictory pressures to conform. “It is now normal for 16-year-old girls to think they shouldn’t have pubic hair. That is an idea derived from porn,” Perry says. “On one hand we’re telling girls they have to be engineers and be empowered and on the other hand we’re telling them they have to look and behave like porn stars.”

Girls are feeling the effects of “pornification” – the colonisation of mainstream music videos, adverts and games by the poses and attitudes of hardcore material. Researchers say young women blame the normalisation of a porn aesthetic for increases in harassment and abuse. A 2010 poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that a third of girls had encountered unwanted sexual touching at school. A 2009 NSPCC study found that a quarter of girls aged 13-17 had suffered sexual violence from a boyfriend.

Anti-porn groups worry about a feedback loop: we become desensitised to the quasipornographic representations of women’s bodies in public space and so porn consumers chase greater extremes in the unregulated realm online. “The more pornography infiltrates our everyday lives, whether through music videos, page three or sexist adverts, the more hardcore and violent the industry has become to differentiate itself,” says Sophie Bennett, of the activist organisation OBJECT.

It isn’t just girls who suffer. ChildLine reported that the year-on-year increase in calls from boys disturbed by pornography they had seen online was 70 per cent in 2012. Of those calls, 59 per cent came from children under the age of 15. Young men, Perry says, are growing up with a toxic understanding of their role. “If you’re a 15- or 16-year-old boy now, what do you think a woman wants in bed? What do you think sex even looks like?”

Last year, Perry chaired a cross-party parliamentary review of online child protection. It was not the first such investigation. In 2011 Reg Bailey, the chief executive of Mothers’ Union, a Christian charity, conducted an inquiry into “the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood” for the Department for Education. In 2008, the celebrity psychologist Dr Tanya Byron reviewed the risks posed to children by the internet and video games for the Lab our government. The aggregate conclusion from all these reports is that: first, childhood is under siege from technology and commerce, which devour innocence; and second, change is inevitable but that doesn’t mean governments are powerless to intervene.

Perry’s review recommended a system that would oblige internet service providers (ISPs) to filter by default “adult content” – a term that includes, besides porn, sites celebrating anorexia and suicide. Users would then have to “opt in”, actively requesting access to the forbidden material. This approach was supported by a vigorous campaign in the Daily Mail and until late last year it appeared to enjoy the backing of the Prime Minister. But the “opt-in” model was abruptly killed off in a public consultation.

The objections were both practical and ideological. Many web users felt their privacy was violated by the need to apply for porn access. Technical experts doubted that such filters could be made to work. Mobile-phone providers already have them in place – asking users to confirm their age before allowing them to view some sites – but the blocks are notoriously clumsy. Academic articles and harmless pictures containing fleshy tones get caught in the net. (The accidental filtering of innocent data in trawls for obscenity is sometimes referred to as “the Scunthorpe problem”, for reasons that become clear on close inspection of the town’s name.)

Another concern is the blocking of legitimate sites offering sexual health advice to young people who are afraid to consult parents about their problems. Free speech campaigners are sceptical. “You will never get a perfect filter that can exercise moral and ethical judgement. It’s a machine,” says Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship. “[The web] would be seriously hampered as a social space if we were to allow government or force companies to put these filters in place.”

The free speech argument is not that porn - ography is a sacrosanct form of expression (though a few libertarian ultras take this view). It is that politicians and corporations must not be trusted with technology that is explicitly designed to obstruct the flow of information.

A dangerous precedent is set when society accepts the banning at source of whole categories of material. “There’s a temptation to think that, because we can do it with technology, we should, in a way that we wouldn’t even think about discussing if it meant destroying books,” says Reidy. “It has to be called censorship in the end, as you are effecting a limit on what people can read or watch.”

Child protection campaigners are unimpressed by that argument. They worry that the balance of power online is on the side of pornographers and predators and that we need high walls around bits of the network to mark out safe spaces for children. “There is no ideological conflict with civil liberties, freedom of speech or any other freedoms,” says Claire Lilley, a policy adviser covering technology at the NSPCC. “This is not an issue of censorship, it’s about choice. Effective filtering provides freedom of choice.”

The ISPs hate the “opt-in” idea. They see themselves primarily as pipeline companies, selling access to infrastructure down which others transmit content. They don’t want any change in the law that implies open-ended responsibility for what is travelling down those pipes. Yet the industry also recognises growing political pressure to act against the profusion of porn and a commercial opportunity to appeal to anxious parents with products that promise to sanitise the web.

“The argument tends to get polarised between people who say ‘all porn is evil’ and those who demand a completely free internet as part of the common good,” says Dido Harding, the chief executive of the telecoms group TalkTalk. “The truth is going to be somewhere in between.”

In March last year, TalkTalk became the first broadband provider to prompt customers with “an unavoidable” choice to block adult content – a simple yes or no question, posed when the service is first activated. About a third say yes, which, the company surmises, equals roughly the proportion of households with dependent children.

Harding sees fellow ISPs as having a moral obligation to provide parents with the tools to protect children, but she warns that filters are no substitute for engaged parenting. “It’s not good enough to say technology can keep children safe. When an 11-year-old goes out of the front door you ask where she is going. Online, it’s too easy not to ask the same question.”

According to research by the London School of Economics, 52 per cent of 11-to-16- year-olds have internet access in their own bedroom. A survey carried out for the Bailey review found that, among children who went online regularly, 56 per cent of 12-to-15-yearolds were unsupervised, as were 29 per cent of eight-to-11-year-olds and 12 per cent of five-to-seven-year-olds. Yet children watching porn passively is quickly becoming the least of parents’ worries. Teenagers now share explicit images taken on their mobile phones in private or are bullied into providing them. This material can then be maliciously passed around the playground or posted on the web.

There is no law that can control the kind of sadistic impulse behind much of what appears online, but that doesn’t mean governments can surrender. Having lost the battle for “optin” filters, Perry is determined to construct a regulatory regime that will be, in her words, “as near as damn it”. It is a position that earns her intense and profane abuse online. The community of digital free speech crusaders seems to overlap with a fraternity of vituperative, woman-hating sociopaths, which rather supports the view that web culture is infected with a virus of violent misogyny.

A Labour government would show no greater deference to pornographic freedoms. Helen Goodman, the shadow minister for media reform, has conducted her own focus groups of schoolgirls and come away persuaded that the ubiquity of internet porn and the “wallpaper effect” of heavily sexualised imagery in public is corroding the confidence of young women and making them vulnerable. “The problem is that the normal and the acceptable has only shifted in one direction,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is replicate online the standards we have in the real world. We have a public space that, with a few exceptions, is acceptable for children and that can’t be said about the internet. It is not reasonable to put all of the responsibility for dealing with that on to parents all of the time.”

Parents cannot police everything that their children do online. Teenagers will always have more energy to put into concealment and subterfuge than adults can muster to investigate them. That imbalance becomes even more pronounced where one generation has a native understanding of the digital world, having grown up there, while their elders struggle with the disorientations and language barriers of digital immigration.

Many children of migrants see misty-eyed parental nostalgia for the old country as disqualification from commenting on the habits and lifestyles of the new one. The same must surely be true of those who were born in the internet age, hearing the moralising angst of those who were thrust into it as adults. Those of us who cannot even begin to imagine why anyone would post pictures of debauched private antics in a public space struggle to transmit that bafflement to those who do it without a second thought – as if the event cannot be said to have happened fully if it hasn’t been recorded on Facebook.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t tech-savvy parents. There are thousands of adults who squander hours online as dissolutely as their children. But they have the memory of growing up analogue. They know about letterwriting and keeping 10p for a payphone – the psychological relics of a childhood on a lost continent. For the children of the New World there is no obvious distinction between analogue and digital being. The space online is part of the fabric of their lives, which makes it impossible to imagine how a porn-busting algorithm or patch of code could protect them from abuse.

That does not diminish the need for some kind of intervention. The crucial leap is in recognising that the internet is more than a method of communication; it is a place for being. That means the civil libertarians are right when they say we must be careful how much control we hand over to private corporations and state managers. It also means that politicians are right to see it as an area where governments can reasonably claim jurisdiction. We can teach our children to beware predators and to stand up to bullies online. Just as urgently, we need to teach them to engage in the analogue politics around the internet. The best people to design regulations in a community are probably the ones who live there full-time.