Child Exposure to Internet Porn: From Crisis to Action
David John Sandifer, Ph.D.
No one thinks children watching porn is a good thing. It’s the reason we call pornography ‘adult’ content: as a society, we feel deeply that it is harmful and inappropriate for children to view explicit sexual content. If children are watching porn, it’s a problem.
The question is: how great of a problem? And, what can we do about it, if anything? This is where the conversation tends to bog down. We face a seemingly endless list of social problems. But society is unlikely to mobilise to solve a particular social problem unless it is seen as 1) a crisis, and 2) having a plausible solution without too high a cost. Conversely, if a social problem is generally viewed as merely troublesome rather than intolerable, and/or if it is viewed as unsolvable, or if the solution involves too many trade-offs, it will remain largely unaddressed.
We may call this the social problem matrix:
Until now in Australia, and in most Western countries, the problem of child exposure to porn has largely been viewed as less than intolerable and/or as not having a workable solution that doesn’t involve unrealistic trade-offs. This is the reason it has remained on the backburner until now: other problems have been viewed as more pressing, and/or as admitting of more obvious solutions, and therefore, as more worthy of attention. Most people—including most politicians—feel uncomfortable with the reality of child exposure to porn. But most people—including most politicians—do not view it as crisis, and if they do, do not know what to do about it.
The purpose of this paper is to convince the reader, in the first place, that the problem of child exposure to pornography is in fact intolerable—that it is a social crisis which cannot simply be accepted in a modern society; and in the second place, that there is a solution which is workable and does not involve unrealistic trade-offs. The aim is to ‘move the needle’ so that our collective consciousness and body politic shift toward concrete action.
1. The Scope of the Problem: Raising Kids on Porn
It’s a porn world
Contrary to those who state that ‘porn has always been around’, it is hard to over-state the change which has taken place over the last 25 years in the dissemination of pornography. Porn has gone from ‘dirty magazines’ plastic-sealed on the top shelves at newsstands to graphic representations of every sex act imaginable a click away on any device connected to the internet. Something once confined to the margins of society, and associated with broad disapproval, has become mainstream and ubiquitous. As the title of a 2014 report by the UK Children’s Commissioner put it, ‘basically, porn is everywhere’. Without rehearsing the data in detail, a few key statistics might help to give a sense of the scale of the porn onslaught:
- As many as 25% of web searches are porn-related and as much as 35% of internet downloads are porn.
- 34% of internet users have experienced unwanted exposure to pornographic content;
- The world’s largest porn site, PornHub, reported that in 2016 91 billion videos were watched on its website—or 12.5 videos for every person on the planet.
- According to a 2016 study, 16.1% of men admitted to watching porn while at work.
Furthermore, the content being viewed is a far cry from the airbrushed models of yore in nudie mags. A study of the most popular porn scenes showed that 88% contained physical aggression, 94% of it was directed toward women; in 95% of cases the victim was shown to respond either neutrally or with pleasure. The top 20 search terms at Pornhub for 2017 included ‘stepmom’, ‘stepsister’, ‘anal’, ‘creampie’, and ‘gangbang’. Some porn actors have actually noted and decried the shift toward harder and harder content. 
No humans in history have ever been bathed in such a slew of intense and explicit sexual media. Psychologists and social researchers are only beginning to grapple with the impacts of this dramatic change in the way we organise our sexuality as a society. However, it is already clear that it is profoundly affecting self-identity, socialisation patterns, gender roles and relations, romantic relationships, and marriages. One social scientist has referred to it as ‘the largest unregulated social experiment in history’.
Children and porn: ‘The wallpaper of our lives’
Yet, whatever one’s beliefs about the desirability or not of a ‘pornified society’, our concern here is for the impact it has had on children. For the radical change which has occurred in the last 25 years is not only that porn has become much more broadly diffused, but that the traditional boundary protecting minors from sexually explicit media has all but been obliterated: kids are viewing porn.
The numbers are staggering:
- A major study at the University of Sydney in 2012 showed that for men who were frequent users of pornography, 43% were first exposed to pornography between the ages of 11 and 13.
- A large-scale survey in the US revealed that amongst young adults age 25-30, 25% had first viewed pornography before puberty.
- The same survey revealed that half of 13-24 year-olds actively seek out online porn at least once a week.
- In a 2010 survey of English 14-16 year-olds, nearly one third claimed that their first exposure to pornography was at 10 years or younger.
- The same survey revealed that the porn site Pornhub was one of the “Top 5” internet sites for 11-15 year-old boys.
- The 2015 Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Report indicates ‘The growing ubiquity of mobile devices means those targeted or indirectly implicated are getting younger and younger — with children as young as 5 or 6 years of age now exposed to cyber bullying and online pornography — sometimes of the most extreme kind.’
It would be extraordinary if this kind of exposure were not having an effect on children and young people. Indeed, the evidence is pouring in that the ubiquity of porn in children’s lives is transforming the experience of childhood and adolescence—predictably, not for the better.
- There is a consensus among research in the field that pornography is now “routine among children and young people, with a range of notable and often troubling effects”.
- Multiple studies have shown a correlation between early exposure to pornography and early sexual activity.
- Minors who have been exposed to pornography and sexualised media are less supportive of equal rights for women.
- Minors who have been exposed to pornography are more likely to view women as sex objects.
- Minors who view pornography and other sexualised media are more accepting of sexual violence, and more likely to believe “rape myths” (that women enjoy being raped).
- Adolescents who are exposed to pornography are more likely to engage in sexual violence.
- Pornography is used by adult sexual abusers to undermine children’s resistance to exploitation.
As is often the case, it is at risk communities which are paying the highest price. A recent event witnessed and reported to health authorities paints a horrifying picture of the pervasiveness of porn in some indigenous communities: in a remote aboriginal community a toddler, on seeing a dog having an erection, moved toward it and proceeded to attempt to suck its penis. The explanation is not mysterious: porn was constantly being viewed in the open in the child’s home.
But the problems resulting from early exposure to porn cut across all demographics. An article a couple of years ago in the UK Telegraph reported a marked increase in the number of young, middle-class teenage girls presenting with serious internal damage, in some cases with life-long effects, which they incurred as a result of rough sex. The reason? The boys they were having sex with were pressuring them to mimic the anal sex they watched on porn videos.
In the last several decades, cognitive science has come to a better understanding of the way in which our brains become organised, something known as ‘neural plasticity’. In particular, we now know that intense emotional experiences literally ‘re-wire’ the brain. Furthermore, repeated experiences create neural pathways which ‘train’ the brain to operate in certain ways. And younger brains have greater neural plasticity than older ones, meaning that neural pathways which are laid down in the early years can persist throughout a lifetime.
While the research in this area is on-going, the implications for early exposure to pornography are deeply disturbing: the latest neuroscience research has demonstrated that pornography use has measurable negative impacts on the brain. Sexual impulses which are just coming to the fore (or still unconscious) will be associated with the situations and behaviours depicted in porn. Furthermore, each repeated exposure will further strengthen these neural pathways. Research by behavioural scientists shows that the consumption of pornography can lead to a craving for more, with similar neurological processes to those observed in substance addiction.
This means that instead of pubescent minors having their sexual development shaped by the social interactions they naturally have with their peers, the process is hijacked by the super-charged explicit content which they consume. It is a terrifying thought that a typical teenager today will have seen, and been sexually stimulated by, thousands of graphic sex acts before ever having had their first kiss. The teenage boys pressuring their hook-ups for anal sex are not just mimicking what they’ve seen in porn: they’re acting out a scenario they’ve repeatedly played in their minds and used to bring themselves to sexual climax.
Porn as educator
In truth though, we don’t need cognitive science or even statistics to tell us what we have always known: children are shaped by the quality of their influences. Our entire educational system is based on this premise: we deliberately expose children to those things which we want them to be shaped by (morality tales, good music, kind people, an ordered environment) while intentionally shielding them from those things which we do not want them to emulate or be shaped by.
The thought of children and young people absorbing the attitudes and values embodied in porn is nightmarish. Yet this, on the ground, is exactly what parents are being faced with on a day-to-day basis: they’ve lost the ability to control the way that their children grow into their sexuality, as porn has colonised their sexual development.
A survey of child exposure to porn reveals a frightening landscape, and one likely to only grow worse in years to come. It is not only a problem, it is a crisis—arguably the greatest crisis facing children and young people today.
The internet as an unboundaried[AS1] social space
If, in the 1980s, you had told the average parent—or lawmaker, or citizen—that in a few short years, children of any age would have easy and unlimited access, not only to the kind of smut found on the upper shelves of the newsstand, but to graphic depictions of every sex act imaginable, they would have recoiled in disbelief and horror. The internet has created a new kind of social space. In our physical social spaces, our society is organised around the principle that some things are not appropriate for children, and are therefore excluded from the general space where children may be present. In the case of the internet, this compact has broken down: there is no ‘general space’ where only child-safe content is present, no barriers preventing minors from being exposed to inappropriate content. What parent would dream of setting up a home library with encyclopaedias and science books at one end, children’s literature and classics at the other, and, in the middle of it, volumes and volumes of hardcore pornography—and then saying, ‘go for it, kid’? And yet this is effectively what every parent does whenever they hand their child a smartphone.
This presents an untenable situation: on the one hand, the internet has become so intertwined in our lives that it is not possible to simply opt out—schools in particular increasingly rely on it, for assignments and communication with students. On the other hand, there is no effective way to shield children from content which is grossly inappropriate and seriously harmful. This is the heart of the porn crisis: we need the internet, but the internet is destroying our children. Can anything be done?
2. Toward a solution: an internet safe for children
The myth of inevitability
A recent article in Wired magazine led with the headline: ‘Your kids will see internet porn—deal with it.’ Part of the lethargy in response to the crisis of child exposure to porn is an oft-repeated mantra that ‘nothing can be done’—the internet is here to stay, porn and other content harmful to children is part of the package, and we just need to learn to live with it. As former UK Prime Minister David Cameron put it:
…the internet can sometimes be given a sort of special status in debate. In fact, it can almost be seen as beyond debate, that to raise concerns about how people should access the internet or what should be on it, is somehow naïve or backwards looking. People sometimes feel they’re being told almost the following: that an unruled internet is just a fact of modern life; any fallout from that is just collateral damage and that you can as easily legislate what happens on the internet as you can legislate the tides.
It is a strange aspect of modern Western culture that, while we mount vigorous campaigns to defeat various social ills, from gender wage inequality to bullying in schools, we throw up our hands in a blasé show of helplessness before this generalised assault on our children. There are two arguments given to justify this paralysis. The first is technical: the internet is inherently distributed and complex, and there is therefore no realistic way to make it safe for children. The second is philosophical: a completely open and unregulated internet is essential to the preservation of free speech.
Both claims are specious on the face of it: it is bizarre to assert that an internet safe for children represents an impossible technical hurdle, even as we teach cars to whiz around on their own and plan colonies on Mars; and no one ever suggested that limiting the sale of Playboy to adults meant the end of democracy. But the argument is moot in any case: the UK is proving that a child-friendly internet is possible.
The UK model
In July 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech announcing an agreement with the four major UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ‘make the internet safer for children’. According to the new protocol, the ISPs would put in place internet filters blocking online content by the end of that year, with adult account-holders having the option to disable them. The filters were to be provided by third party companies. The filters were in fact rolled out over the course of 2013, and are still in place.
The UK already had a filtering regime in place for mobile devices. Since 2004, Ofcom, the regulatory body overseeing broadcasting and communications, has provided mobile carriers with a constantly updated list of adult sites, which are in turn blocked by default—adult users can then unblock the content if they choose to. All the mobile carriers in the UK comply with this scheme.
Both of these arrangements to filter adult content are now in the process of being supplemented by an additional level of protection: age verification. Under the Digital Economy Act (2017) ‘all online commercial pornography services accessible from the UK will be required to carry age-verification tools to prevent children from seeing content which isn’t appropriate for them’. The responsibility for overseeing the implementation of age-verification was entrusted to the British Board of Film Classification (BFFC), which also oversees age ratings for TV, films, and some video games. The law was initially to take effect in April 2018, but has now been pushed back to the end of this year.
The technical aspects are being left to the industry to sort out, and there will in all probability be competing services. The key element is that age verification can take place while preserving anonymity: users create an account with an age verification service with a one-time identification check, and thereafter the service is used to answer a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ query from the age verification page on an adult website. BBFC can impose fines to non-compliant websites (whether inside or outside the UK) and also has the authority to make ISPs block such sites.
Age verification is the gold standard for child protection on the internet—as even pornographers are willing to acknowledge. In a recent interview, mega porn star James Deen quoted a porn site owner who, when asked about age verification responded: ‘As a father I agree with you 100 percent, I would love to do that. As a businessman, I will go out of business in a day’.
Thus the UK model involves a two-layered approach to a child-safe internet: by default internet filtering for ISPs and mobile providers of adult content, and (soon) the more robust age-verification system, enabled by third-party services. While concerns were initially expressed that filtering would cause technical problems—especially, slowing down service—none of these have materialised, and the roll-out has been relatively seamless. Filtering is never perfect, and there is always a concern about both false positives and false negatives in the blocking mechanism—but continuous reporting of problems means constant improvement in the accuracy of the system. It is too early to know the outcome of the age-verification law, but by every evidence the scheme is technically achievable and will not present an onerous burden. The UK model is not perfect and is still being developed—but it is one giant step toward making the internet safe for children.
Bringing something like the UK model to Australia will naturally raise objections:
1. Can’t parents ensure the safety of children on the internet? Why must the whole internet be changed to accommodate children?
This was a somewhat plausible objection when the internet was typically accessed from home or a public library—parents were able to provide oversight of their children’s internet usage. However, the internet is now ubiquitous. Smartphones, in particular, mean that even the most conscientious parent has no control over what their child might see on someone else’s device.
2. Isn’t this censorship? Doesn’t it represent the end of freedom of speech on the internet?
Regulation is not censorship: content providers would still be free to distribute porn and other adult content, so long as it is legal. However, just as in every other social space, there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that children are not exposed to inappropriate material.
3. Wouldn’t this involve the government monitoring internet usage? Doesn’t this open the door to all kinds of abuses?
The model being used in the UK does not involve the government either in filtering content or providing age verification—both are provided by private parties, with government oversight to ensure compliance. There is no reason something similar could not be achieved in Australia.
4. If anyone can opt out of filtering, doesn’t this mean that children can still be exposed to adult content?
Yes. No system is perfect. This is part of the reason for the age-verification system, which provides an additional layer of protection. However, the UK experience has shown that a ‘default-on’ filter (as opposed to either ‘opt-in’ or ‘forced choice’) results in much higher adoption rates, and this is the approach which should be used in Australia: the onus should be on adults who want to access porn to put in the extra effort, rather than on parents seeking to protect their kids.
Other approaches: Education is NOT the answer
A regulatory model such as the one adopted in the UK sometimes meets with the objection that it is unnecessarily heavy-handed, or too simplistic—that the answer lies instead with a multi-pronged approach using tools already at our disposal. Usually what is meant by this is primarily education and training.
Yet the claim that ‘education, not regulation’ is the answer to child exposure to porn is inadequate and misleading. It goes without saying that both children and parents and caregivers need to be provided with tools and resources to navigate the internet as safely and productively as possible, and that much more could be done in this area. That said, the state has a duty of care to ensure that a child’s environment is free of obvious dangers—and this is no less true of a child’s virtual environment than their physical one. We would never tolerate a public water system that routinely pumped lead into drinking water, putting the responsibility on parents to filter and otherwise make sure that their children are not exposed—or giving children classes on ‘minimising lead in your water’. It is just as outrageous for adult internet content which we know to be harmful to children to be disseminated with no safeguards.
There is no evidence of any education program having had any direct impact on levels of child exposure to pornography. The claim that better education is the answer to the porn crisis is a naïve and tragically timid response to a problem much greater than any educational efforts can overcome.
Adopting the UK model in Australia
The internet in Australia is not unregulated. Under the Broadcasting Services Act (1992), the primary oversight is provided by the Australian Media and Communications Authority (AMCA), in conjunction with an industry code of practice. ACMA oversees the blocking of illegal content (such as child pornography) in Australia, and has the authority to block adult content on sites hosted in Australia. However, it has no authority to block adult content which is hosted on overseas websites, and accessed in Australia.
In addition, in 2015, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner was created, with a broad remit to ‘promote online safety for all Australians’. However, the office has no regulatory powers, focusing instead on education and reporting.
Adopting a regime based on the UK model would likely involve either an amendment to the Broadcasting Services Act or a new act, entrusting the AMCA with the authority to enforce by-default filtering and age-verification. While this would certainly involve costs (primarily expanding the staff of AMCA to oversee compliance), all of the technical tools are already available, or will soon be. In many ways, the fact that the UK has blazed the trail toward a child-safe internet would make the process much easier here in Australia.
Child exposure to internet pornography is a social health crisis, one which virtually every child and young person in Australia is likely to be affected by in years to come. In many ways it is already redefining childhood and adolescence. Many parents are appalled by what they observe, but at a loss to know what to do about it.
The UK model offers an obvious solution to the crisis. While no solution is perfect, the combination of default filtering and age-verification offers the possibility of a child-safe general space on the internet, with no significant technical hurdles, and with only minimal inconvenience imposed on those adults who want to access adult content. Australia should adopt a system based on the UK model.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Australia is a signatory, states that ‘mass media… should not promote material that could harm children’ (Article 17). The Australian government has a duty of care to protect children from harmful content on the internet. It is time for action.
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