Jack Procter-Blain

Online pornography: prevent or educate?

The Digital Economy Bill takes the government’s preventative approach to online safeguarding a step further. However, is restricting access the right way to go? 

One childhood memory I have is of lingering in the back aisles of Blockbuster, waiting for my mum to buy me the new Grand Theft Auto video game.

As you may know, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is notorious for featuring as much graphic violence and obscenity as could be squeezed onto one disc. Each iteration is invariably given the maximum, 18-rated age certificate.

Back then, it would have been impossible for the eleven-year-old me to get my hands on a game like that without convincing (and, as I recall, literally begging) my mum to buy it on my behalf.

In the history of adult-only content this was the Blockbuster era, which came to an end (much like the company itself) when media sales migrated from the shelves to the online stores.

Similarly, soft-core pornography has outgrown the covers of the ‘lads mags’ and taken up a colossal chunk of today’s internet space.

With this digital revolution comes the problem of replacing whoever stood behind the Blockbuster counter: the discerning adult preventing the under-aged from viewing all manner of explicit material.

The stronger the presence of online pornography, the easier the access.

The easier the access, the greater the responsibility for internet service providers and other tech giants to prevent under-age exposure.

Or, so you'd think.

A regulatory framework

The Digital Economy Bill has recently passed its second reading in the House of Commons, and is likely to pass through the Committee stage by the end of October. The bill proposes changes in various aspects of digital infrastructure and communication - from copyright infringement to minimum broadband speeds.

But the most interesting – and most flawed – clauses of the Bill set out a proposed ‘regulatory framework’ for preventing young people’s exposure to online pornography.

‘The easy availability and nature of online pornography is changing the way children and young people understand healthy relationships, sex and consent’, says the government factsheet. 

'Just as we do in the offline world, we want to make sure that online content that is only suitable for adults is not freely accessible to children.'

Currently, there are no obligations for pornographic website owners to impose age restriction checks on their incoming traffic.

'Online pornography is changing the way children and young people understand healthy relationships, sex and consent'

Although school computers will already have filters in place to block access to adult sites, there are as yet no barriers in the way of pupils who could watch, and share explicit material remotely (using their own smartphone) without being age verified.

For the government, matching the pace of technological change means working with, not against, pornography vendors and payment firms to ‘establish a new regulatory framework’ that will benefit all. 

Establishing the framework will obligate adult sites to set up age checks on their incoming visitors. Any non-compliant companies will be referred by the government to payment firms such as Visa and Mastercard, who are then 'enabled' to withdraw their services from those sites.

The government plans for the framework to encompass all ‘free’ and commercial sites (even those hosted overseas) and eventually extend its oversight to adult-only apps.

Misplaced optimism

Despite the Bill’s successful parliamentary readings so far, consultation response to the age verification proposals has been far from encouraging - and I can understand why. 

43% of respondents disagreed with the idea that the government could successfully encourage payment firms to voluntarily remove their own services from pornography vendors.

In fact, 44% of respondents disagreed with the proposal to establish age verification controls on online pornography in the first place, with a mere 43% in approval.

The resounding impression from the consultation response is that, if the government has already failed to produce an overwhelming majority (with no vested interest) in favour of their proposals, how likely are they to convince payment firms to sever their own profits for the purpose of policy?

There is no sign that the consultation response has been taken on board. For a government looking to travel so far down the road of prevention, the idea of pressuring payment firms into a vague, constricting ‘regulatory framework’ seems entirely normal, and not naïve.

This is not a cue for schools to ignore, in the hope that the government's (misplaced) optimism will eventually produce a more feasible bill with similar intentions.

We need to determine what makes 'effective safeguarding' - is prevention the best approach to take? 

Uncomfortable truth

The exposure of over half of 11-16 year-olds to online pornography is an unsettling fact.

Without doubt, I recognise the need to act swiftly and comprehensively. We cannot allow pornography to negatively shape young people's self-esteem and mental health, or give unrealistic expectations of sex.

However, despite the government's optimism, I don't believe that we can achieve this with age verification alone.

Neither can we fully address ‘sexting’, and the frequent sharing of explicit images via Snapchat, by trying to restrict access to services altogether. 

Firstly, we must face the uncomfortable truth that policy will always be one step behind technology. Restrict access in one way, and another will open up.

Trying to restrict access to pornography also carries the risk of further suggesting to young people that it is something cool and transgressional; something that law-making adults don't want young people to see. We can all admit that the minute you label something as 'banned' or 'adult-only', pupils are only more eager to find it.

See no evil.

Holistic approach

So what can be done?

I fully agree with Safer Internet’s call for a more holistic approach to online safeguarding; if schools can play any part in this, it would be by giving pupils the opportunity to discuss their own experiences of, and attitudes towards pornography.

It is telling that the majority of 11-18 year-old themselves believe there should be more sex education in schools, particularly on the impact of pornography. 

  • Rather than outright blocking it, we need to discuss why pornography offers an unrealistic depiction of sex.
  • Rather than trying to impose age verification controls, we should be encouraging pupils to see real-life sex as something intimate and natural.

In addition, more young people need to know what consent is, and how they can identify or give it. 

Resting on the assumption that young people will pick these lessons up on their own is precisely what has allowed pornography to create such unrealistic expectations of sex (and relationships) in the first place. 

Teachers must take the initiative. Translate the most essential messages into engaging activities and digestible content. Touch on scenarios that young people are familiar with, or may already have experienced.

It has been done, and it does work.

A preventative approach will only go as far as to further suggest to young people that pornography is this cool, transgressional content that adults don’t want them to see.

Seen for what it is

The sooner schools can adopt a statutory PSHE curriculum in which SRE features prominently, the sooner teachers can encourage pupils to see pornography for what it actually is.

Prevention did not stop me from playing Grand Theft Auto while seven years under the minimum age.

Instead, the tutelage of adults allowed me to realise that stealing cars and dismembering innocent civilians are things that belong in the fictional landscapes of video games, not in the real world.

Similar tutelage, if given comprehensively enough in the classroom, can bring pupils to the same conclusions about pornography.

More on sex education in schools

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