What’s all the fuss about? I mean, really, does porn harm children? Does stumbling across a few nudes really impact a child and their understanding of the world? And if it does harm them, where’s the evidence?
Kids now live in a culture that is significantly different to even as recent as five years ago. The proliferation of mobile devices and broadband Internet changed everything and research is struggling to keep up.
For this very reason, it’s important that parents aren’t lulled to sleep on the nature of online, hard-core mainstream pornography. Whilst I’m certainly not wanting to be an alarmist about this, if we truly pull back the covers on porn, we see that it’s most certainly not harmless nudity or a bit of slap and tickle.
Accurate research is, without a doubt, difficult to obtain. The ethics of asking children or young people about explicit material is perhaps the very reason why reports suggest that we aren’t exactly sure what young people are exposed to. However, we can make some fairly accurate assumptions based on what we know is ‘mainstream’ and readily available. Bear in mind that the Office of Film and Literature Classification specifically makes it illegal for children to be viewing pornography, yet this counts for nothing given the widespread prevalence and availability of this content on the Internet.
Take for instance the website Pornhub – it has a current global ranking of 62 (up 3 from 65 in January 2016). A 2013/14 survey carried out by ChildWISE in the UK revealed that Pornhub was one of the “Top 5” internet sites for 11-16 year-old boys. Although this data is from the UK, the Internet leaves few parts of the globe disconnected and these figures are likely to be consistent with Australia.
Following on in 2015, a NSPCC survey revealed that:
- Nearly one in ten 12-13 year olds are worried they might be addicted to porn.
- Around one in five said they’d seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them
- 12 per cent admitted to making or been part of a sexually explicit video.
Let that sink in for a minute. One tenth of 12 to 13-year-olds are worried about how much they use porn. This is at a critical time of brain development, neuroplastic learning, sexual development and formation of concepts critical to healthy relationships.
A 15-year-old boy told ChildLine that he “didn’t think it was affecting me at first but I’ve started to view girls a bit differently recently and it’s making me worried. I would like to get married in the future but I’m scared it might never happen if I carry on thinking about girls the way I do.”
A girl, who was at the time 17, shared with the BBC that she was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend when they were both 12 years old. “He thought it was OK on some level. I felt dirty, confused, shocked. Pornography isn’t just a 10-minute video – it has consequences.”
And more recent studies in Australia by Our Watch, draw links between sexualisation, stereotypes, porn and abuse. South East Centre Against Sexual Assault in Victoria (SECASA), revealed in their submission to the Senate Inquiry Harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet: “When you have sex with a guy they want it to be like a porno. They want anal and oral right away. Oral is, like, the new kissing… the cum shot in the face is a big thing.” (16 year old girl)
The majority of pornography viewed on the internet – which is now one of the primary modems of consumption – is violent or ‘hard-core’ pornography. Well known Australian researcher, Maree Crabbe, outlines the concept of a bell curve: where one side is soft-core or erotica, and the other side is the most extreme depictions of pornography such as child pornography and snuff porn involving the real or perceived death of participants. That which sits within the mid-range and is most readily available is hard-core porn (Crabbe, 2016).
Researcher, Linette Etheredge, offers a modern definition for pornography that reflects her own investigations into content that is free and readily available. Etheredge says this type of content appears to demand violence and inequity as its core and defines it as:
Illegal, unclassified, “gonzo” or hard-core XXX, “free online material that depicts individuals or groups engaging in sexual behaviours where inequity between the parties is clear, violence is observed or audible, where degradation, humiliation, punishment and extreme submission appear to be the general objective of the power dynamics or behaviour depicted.
A quick glance of the landing page of PornHub confirms Etheredge’s findings. The titles of videos on the landing page include a line-up ofTrick or Torture; Fucks young girl in the park; Hot teen Pleases her BF with a blow job; Tatooed Australian teen shower toying; and Hot Sub in Brutal Bondage.
Unfortunately, this type of violent and degrading pornography makes up the majority of online content watched and thus is most likely to negatively affect children and young people (M. Crabbe, personal communication, February 9, 2016).
It’s interesting to follow the pathway of a researcher who several years ago, was unwilling to say for certain that pornography was indeed harmful to children. In 2010, Professor Sonia Livingstone said “In short, there seems to be no conclusive evidence to support the claim that sexually explicit R18 material might seriously impair the development of minors.” This same researcher in 2015 changed her tune considerably, supporting studies that say “across the board, younger children are much more likely to report being upset by Sexually Explicit Internet Material, and that these negative reactions may stem from a lack of developmental readiness;” and again when referring to an older age bracket: “Particularly relevant here is the growing evidence showing that adolescents who encounter one type of risk online are likely to encounter others too, online and offline. Similarly, the more adolescents engage in sexual activities online, the more they engage in them offline, and vice versa”.
Livingstone’s report offers a good synopsis into more recent concerns and how the interaction of online pornography in young people’s lives often intersects with unhealthy sexual development, attitudes and behaviours; and at the same time, acknowledges the tensions between sexual risks and sexual rights to information. It finds that “SEIM (Sexually Explicit Internet Material) in itself appears to be an inept and harmful source of information about sex. At the moment young people do not receive the appropriate tools to help them critically assess pornographic images, nor do they receive relationship-based sex education that discusses the positive potential of sex in a consenting, affectionate relationship.”
Whilst there is always room for more research, key bodies such as the Australian Psychological Association clearly speak about the harms of pornography to children. In their submission to the Senate Inquiry into the ‘Harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet’, they said “There should be zero tolerance for pornography for under 12 year-olds – there is emerging evidence that there are serious negative impacts for these children, largely in terms of increased sexual abuse by young children on other children involving anal and vaginal penetration. Limiting children’s access to online technologies is important.” Given the modern definition of free and readily available pornography, it’s little wonder the APA holds so much concern for children’s welfare in this age bracket.
Dr Joe Tucci from the Australian Childhood Foundation has named this issue as a public health crisis; Cyber-Safety Expert Susan McLean, regularly speaks on the issue; Australian researcher Maree Crabbe has extensively documented the negative impacts on young people’s perception of sex and their relationships; and psychologists Collett Smart, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg and many others, have publicly expressed concerns about the impact of pornography on child and adolescent sexual development. Recent Australian research found that 75% of 7 to 11-year-old boys and 67% of 7 to 11-year-old girls in treatment for Problem Sexualised Behaviour reported early sexualisation through online pornography.
Video presentations from some of the above-mentioned forerunners in this field are available on the Porn Harms Kids website. ThePornography and Harms to Children and Young Peoplesymposium in February marked the turning of the tide in this conversation and found that all avenues must be pursued to explore possible solutions to this crisis, including education, voluntary efforts by relevant industries, and regulation. While ever wide-spread access to hard core porn is prevalent, the psychological, emotional and relational wellbeing of our children will continue to be impacted.
The continued push for holistic relationships and sexuality education to counteract porn culture is imperative, as is strengthening parent / child communication about sexuality – both serve as protective factors. However, it’s also important to investigate avenues more broadly. Currently there are huge question marks over the legal negligence of digital service providers who fail to implement the rights of the child to a safe online environment.
While ever the issue of harm resulting from children and young people accessing pornography is ignored, we are dragging the chain on implementing important strategies to improve child protection. Yes, parents need to be concerned, because certainly every teacher I speak with at schools are concerned. But concern alone is not enough. Taking action by talking to children under the age of 10 about unsafe images is a great place to start. It’s essential to lift the ‘awkward’ off these conversations and encourage parents and schools to work together with community organisations to develop a whole-of-school approach to relationships and sexuality education.
Parents are well-positioned to ask schools what prevention of sexual harms education they are implementing, and learn what resources are included within relationships and sexuality education to help kids deal with the merge of online access to porn with perception of sexual behaviours. Schools are well-positioned to embed lessons that scaffold learning from the early childhood years to give kids the very best chance of developing protective behaviours, and recognising and critiquing the harms of porn. Essential factors of education include a high focus on increasing protective behaviours, improving relationship & communication skills, and building resilience to porn culture. Individuals within community are well-positioned to add their voice to the growing number of concerned professionals who are acknowledging that action needs to be taken.
To counteract porn cultures messages that bombard children and young people, it’s not enough to say that we need to do ‘something’. As is often said: Failing to plan is planning to fail.