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Children must be banned from accessing pornography under the Online Safety Bill

(Alamy)

4 min read

Children growing up today have never known life without access to the internet. Their interaction with technology is unrecognisable from previous generations.

This online world can be an incredible resource for their learning and connection with friends and family – but there is a darker side to it that I find really concerning.

As children’s commissioner, keeping children safe online is one of my top priorities. I was commissioned by government to examine children’s experiences of the online world and have spoken to hundreds of children and young people across the country to gather their views.  

Earlier this year, I published the results of a survey of 1,000 young people aged 16-21 and focus groups with teenagers. Shockingly, this revealed that the average age at which children first view pornography is now just 13 years old.

In half of these cases relating to sexual abuse, references were made to specific acts of sexual violence commonly seen in pornography

What’s more, substantial proportions of those surveyed who had seen pornography viewed it at a much younger age than 13.  Around 27 per cent had seen it by the age of 11 and 10 per cent had by the age of nine. Young people also spoke about the unbearable pressure to view hardcore pornography even if they do not want to, much of which depicts degrading acts and violence against women.

It is clear from what children tell me that this kind of content is having an impact on their wellbeing, attitudes to sex and relationships, and their self-esteem. I was so concerned by this that I knew it was an area I needed to explore further.

That’s why I have used my statutory powers to collect, for the first time, case files on child-on-child sexual abuse from one police force and one sexual abuse referral clinic, where children had been referred because they had been sexually abused by another child.

Today, I have published the results of this work to examine the text of these documents – more than 500 of them, all of them a stark account of children’s experiences in their own words – to understand more about the role that pornography might play at the sharpest end of child abuse cases.

This new analysis, combined with existing evidence, presents a compelling case in exploring the most serious possible consequences of unrestricted access to pornography in childhood, and specifically the role it might play in influencing harmful sexual behaviour between children – or even the type of abuse carried out.

It is extremely troubling that in half of these cases relating to sexual abuse, references were made to specific acts of sexual violence commonly seen in pornography. What’s more, an additional review of a sample of these cases found children suggesting direct links between pornography exposure and the harmful sexual behaviour exhibited.

For too long we have brushed the issue of pornography under the carpet as something too awkward, uncomfortable or difficult to solve. But we cannot shy away from discussing the nature, scale and impacts of online pornography.

The factors influencing child sexual abuse or violence are complex and multi-faceted, but my report today adds new and important evidence to the crucial debate about children’s access to harmful content online, based on children’s own words and experiences.

No child should be able to access or watch pornography and I believe we have a stronger case than ever for bringing in the most robust protections for children online. That's why passing the Online Safety Bill must be a priority if we are to protect children quickly and effectively – I hope that its return to the House of Lords today will help achieve this.

However, this bill is just one part of the essential and urgent work of protecting children from sexual abuse. It cannot work in isolation and must be combined with broader preventative measures, such as robust relationships education in school, with safeguarding at its core.

It must also go hand in hand with making sure that any child who is a victim of this most terrible crime is given the support they need to recover. That is why I have committed to further work directly with child victims to understand their experiences, so I can make wider recommendations about what needs to change.

In a world where pornography is one click away for any child, we must be doing more to protect them.

 

Dame Rachel de Souza, children's commissioner for England

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