Benjamin de la PavaThe Authority for Video on Demand (ATVOD) held a conference on 12 December on “protecting children from online porn”. LSE’s Benjamin De La Pava was there and reflects on the discussion arguing that there remains little consensus upon which to base policy. 

The ATVOD conference last week on online pornography and protection of children gathered industry, regulators, academics and producers of pornographic content to debate two big questions surrounding online pornography: Is concern about children’s access to online porn justified? And what can be done about it? Despite the aim of getting actors involved in this issue to unite and go ‘forward’ together, the discussion proved that there are still many divisions hindering future policymaking.

Should we be worried?

There was general consensus at the ATVOD event that content available to children with just a few clicks is far more ‘hardcore’ than anything adults today could access when they were children, while the ubiquity of free online porn is far more difficult to deal with compared to audiovisual or printed material.

However, the statistics from EU Kids Online on how many kids are actually seeing porn are less concerning. Only 24% of children 9-16 in the UK admitted to having seen sexual imagery in the past twelve months. Only 11% of these children have done so online and five percent have done it through their phone.

Then there is the issue of whether or not seeing porn as a child is causally related to violent, depraved or corrupt sexual acts as teenager/adult. Here the evidence that is out there remains inconclusive. A recent study on Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups by the office of the Children’s Commissioner concluded that watching online pornography can lead to problematic sexual acts from teenagers, sometimes extremely violent ones. At the Atvod event, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, argued that there is gender divide in this subject, with girls and women seemingly much more concerned about pornography than boys and men.

On the other hand, Guy Cumberbatch’s 2010 review of existing research that updated one by Ellen Helsper from 2005 demonstrated that there is no conclusive evidence that correlates adult violence on women with early exposition to sexual imagery and that mediated sexual violence explains only 2-3% of the variation in sexual aggression. Claims of causality should be taken with caution and more research is needed to understand how exactly audiovisual content of sexual violence and intercourse can, if at all, affect children and teenagers.

What should/can be done?

Even if some consensus is reached that something should be done, one thing that was clear to all of us who attended the ATVOD event was that no single ‘magic bullet’ solution is realistic.

The biggest free pornographic websites operate outside the UK and the European Union. Even inside Europe, regulation is not easy to achieve as countries differ in their judgments about the effects of online porn on a child’s development. Pete Johnson, CEO of ATVOD has argued for two strategies – eliminating preview images and video from pay-to-view websites; and redirecting the flow of cash to foreign sites from the UK back to the UK.

Jurisdictional issues might be overridden by filters, but filtering content is not enough. Seventy-seven percent of British adults feel accessing online porn is easy for children. Credit card checks and other measures are considered to constitute a minimum to protect children although further processes of ID verification can be implemented with pay-to-view websites.

The basic problem, however, is that most children use free-to-access porn sites and “love a challenge”, that is, they relish the opportunity to beat an ID check. And let’s not forget that Ofcom’s recent report showed that 37% of 3-4 yr. olds are using tablets, smart phones and other mobile devices to access the Internet.

Although it is easy for children to get around “declare you are 18” requirements, research in New Zealand shows that while some young people actively circumvent classification systems of audiovisual material to get their hands on harmful material, young people also are aware of the potential harm of it and do use classification systems to avoid content.

In order for children to make informed decisions, both parents and Government should do a better job with regulation and family policy. As Vicky Shotbolt from The Parent Zone said pointed out at the ATVOD conference:

“Parents have never felt very confident about talking to young people about sex – this really is one of those areas where parents have an important role but part of that role is making sure that children have access to independent accurate information they can access on their own terms.”

Add to this the fact that this generation’s parents are the first ones who have to actively deal with their children’s online lives and feel unable to do so. The burden on parents is already quite heavy as it is.

The UK government says it aims to come up with more punitive and harsher legislation that protects children and regulates pay-on-demand pornographic services, but so far the industry is doing better in terms of protection. The industry has taken an ‘active-choice’ approach, including filters for parents that want them, websites with information and educational material, activity logs of children’s Internet browsing and other measures adopted and willing to implement.

What’s next? Will ATVOD bid to regulate freely available online pornography? Can end-user internet filtering solve the problem for parents? Or might public concerns on this issue encourage companies along the internet industry value chain to take further actions to protect children? Much remains uncertain, but what’s clear is that this issue is not going to go away.

This blog post gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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