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Parliament investigates online porn

Parliament investigates online porn

Psychologies is not a magazine to be prudish about pornography. We’ve spent nights discussing it with Howard Jacobson and celebrating it with Television X.

But last year, after getting a bunch of the UK’s leading relationship experts to tell us the problems facing modern couples, we decided to take a stand. Not on consenting adults enjoying pornography, but on how accessible porn is to very young people. That, the experts agreed, was skewing an entire generation’s attitudes towards sex; what it is, what it means, and how you do it.

So we conducted our own research into how widespread the problem actually is (almost one-third of 14 to 16-year-olds first looked at sexual images online when they were aged 10 or younger, and 81 per cent look at online porn while at home), and we launched a campaign to Put Porn In Its Place.

Fast forward six months and Ed Vaizey, minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries has called on the UK’s biggest broadband providers to change how porn is accessed in households. Claire Perry, Conservative MP for Devizes, is championing the cause too, and The Sunday Times led with a front page story about Vaizey’s proposals, Psychologies’ stats and Perry’s initiative.

But not everyone agreed with the notion. Restrict access to online porn and you inadvertently crush the uncontrolled, free nature of the internet, critics argued. So although almost everyone knew something needed to be done, there was little consensus as to what that action should be. A cross-party group was set up by parliament to investigate how to tackle the issue.

So Psychologies editor Louise Chunn and I trotted along to the House of Commons yesterday for the first public evidence session. There, we heard everyone from The Sun‘s agony aunt Deidre Sanders to Jerry Barnett, managing director of the UK’s largest on-demand online porn site, talk about how big the problem is and the best way to resolve – or at least lessen the impact of – it. Here’s a round-up of what they said:

The problem is huge. Sanders told how questions about sexual behaviours that previously only bored 40-somethings were asking her about were now coming from under 16s. Others quoted Psychologies‘ research findings, and a study done by Channel 4, which found that six out of 10 teens thought porn had influenced their life.

There’s the stumble-upon factor. Six-year-olds searching for ‘Disney fairies’ were coming across porn sites by accident. Children Googling ‘CBeebies’ were mistyping ‘CBoobies’ and finding all manner of inappropriate stuff pop up. Barnett, however, thought this was a myth, arguing that very few prepubescent children would stumble upon the kind of site he runs.

It’s about understanding. We’re never going to stop young people seeing porn, however we restrict it, so the important thing is to teach them to understand sex and relationships better.

It’s the free stuff that’s the big problem. Not only did Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary who made a BBC documentary about pornography, think this was the case because it’s accessible to anyone, the porn industry did too: it’s killing their profits.

Mobile phones are tricky. They’re not as big a problem as PCs are, because you have to get the phone operator to unlock them to access porn, Barnett said. But, with the help of camera phones, teenagers are creating their own porn by taking explicit photos of themselves and sharing them.

Technology is the solution and the problem. The filters and blocks are available, but parents don’t always know how to use them (or teens are too tech-savy and override them).

It can’t all be about parents. Some children have parents who don’t care whether or not they watch porn or not, or parents who feel too awkward and embarrassed to discuss sex with them, so preventing access to porn can’t just be a matter for parents.

But it should be all about the parents. Restrict access universally and you take away parents’ role in controlling that access. This might stop parents and their children talking about porn, taking the debate underground.

Sex education is vital. Teach children about sex in the context of a loving, committed relationship and you give them the tools to make sense of what they’re seeing online. That was one argument. Another was that children and teens have a natural curiosity about sex and will naturally want to explore and experiment; sex education should also be about helping them do that. But both sides agreed that teachers and schools had a big role to play.

Media studies can be useful. Teach children in schools that there is a difference between real life and what they see on the TV or online and they’ll be better equipped to understand that porn is fantasy sex, not reality sex.

So where do we go from here? The next stop is back to the House of Commons again on 18 October  to hear from the internet companies about what they think they can, and can’t do. Whatever they say, however, it’s clear that alongside parents and teachers, the tech world has a role to play. We’re looking forward to hearing what that role might be.

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