Liz Fraser on the dangers of internet porn and how we can protect our children from seeing things they shouldn’t
This year ChildLine announced a 34 per cent increase in the number of children and young people contacting its counsellors about hardcore adult pornography. Many who had seen it found it distressing and frightening, or felt under pressure to emulate this behaviour in real life. Some even said they were worried about becoming addicted to pornography. These are children.
It is one of the strangest dichotomies of our times: so many parents wrapping their kids up in a suffocating mass of panic-encrusted cotton wool, not letting them out of their sight lest anything ‘bad’ happen to them, yet at the same time pornography is freely available on the internet without proof of age, so any child can watch it at any time.
Many parents have no idea whether their children are watching this material or not. Or of the long-term emotional damage it can cause.
A 2008 report by Girlguiding UK and the Mental Health Foundation found that ‘premature sexualisation and pressure to grow up too quickly’ were two key negative influences on emotional and mental wellbeing. Other research has indicated that early sexualisation of young children can occur by exposure to sexually provocative images, and can lead to self-harm, depression, and the earlier onset of puberty.
ChildLine founder Esther Rantzen, writing in the Daily Mail, warned that the easy availability of internet porn meant that risky sexual behaviour was becoming ‘normalised’. Even the most relaxed parent out there would be hard pressed not to agree that we should try to prevent our children from seeing this damaging stuff. But how?
Banning child-inappropriate material is not the answer. If an adult wants to make or watch pornographic films or violent video games, they should be allowed to do so, in my view. But where children are concerned we need to take steps to control what they can and cannot see. It’s not taking away their freedom; it’s acting responsibly and protecting them from things that have been shown to be harmful to them.
Both ChildLine and the NSPCC are campaigning for more action to educate children and parents on the dangers of internet porn, and have joined calls for government to introduce an automatic block on online porn to protect children. Making adult material opt-in, rather than opt-out, seems like a very sensible, obvious first step to me.
Another simple step is to take our children’s mobile phones and iPads away from them when they get home, and certainly when they go to bed. Both of my daughters, aged 14 and 12, have mobile phones, and both can connect to the internet on them. When they’re in their bedrooms I have no idea what they’re doing on there – until one of them comments on my Facebook page and is busted! A simple solution has been to take the phones away when they come home from school. A communal ‘techno dumping zone’, where everyone puts their gadgets when they’re in the house, can work very well.
Away from the internet, we parents have another problem: pop videos on television. When I was a teenager, most pop videos were so tame you could screen them on CBeebies now and nobody would blink. Today, most music videos, aimed squarely at the hugely lucrative, giggly, pre-pubescent, pre-teen market, are little short of soft porn. And some are little short of not-very-soft-at-all porn. Children watch them, sing along, and copy every move − writhing, bottom-wiggling, pouting, chest-stroking, finger-sucking twelve-year-olds. How lovely!
These girls have no idea why they’re behaving the way they are. And their parents have no idea how to stop it. One way is not to have music video channels available at home. That’s what we do. Another would be to put an age certification on them, just like films and video games. Simple regulation that meant such videos were only played after 9pm, or were sold with a 15 or 18 certificate on them, would be a welcome start. It wouldn’t stop children seeing them altogether, of course, but it would cut down the number who do.
We can’t stop children seeing things they shouldn’t. But we can, and must, open ours eyes to what theirs are seeing, and start taking steps to reduce the amount of wholly inappropriate material that they can see. This isn’t about prudish overprotection. It’s not mother-hen-ism. It’s about protecting our children from seeing things that they are far too young to cope with, and which have been shown to cause them harm. And we should take it very seriously.