SOCIETY: by Anna KrohnNews Weekly
UK call to protect children from internet porn
, June 9, 2012
Four out of five British mid-teenagers now access internet pornography on a regular basis, an independent cross-party parliamentary group in the United Kingdom has found.
In April this year, the group released its long-awaited 89-page report, entitled Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection: Findings and Recommendations.
The inquiry was conducted principally by a working team of 17 Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parliamentary members, but was supported by 43 other parliamentarians. It was prompted by some of the findings of last year’s 108-page inquiry, Letting Children Be Children: Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood (June 2011).
Known as the Bailey Report (named after its author Reg Bailey, chief executive officer of the Mothers’ Union and adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron on family issues), the 2011 inquiry found that British children were subject to an increasing exposure to online pornography and an accelerated process of sexualisation.
It said: “Some parts of the business world and sections of the media seem to have lost their connection to parents, and this is compounded in some new media where there is limited regulation.”
The report quoted parents who had told the inquiry “that they feel they cannot make their voices heard, and that they often lack the confidence to speak out on sexualisation and commercialisation issues for fear of being labelled a prude or out of touch”.
Claire Perry MP
This year’s cross-party parliamentary inquiry therefore intended to assess both the impact of the pornified media upon children and adolescents in the wake of the on-line revolution and to recommend realistic steps to strengthen child protection at various levels of society, especially by involving parents more directly.
The inquiry was able to map useful and recent statistics within Britain, which reflect similar disturbing trends in other Western countries (including those upon which the recent recommendations of the Australian Medical Association were made).
The inquiry found that four out of five mid-teenagers accessed pornography on a regular basis. It discovered that as many as one in three 6-7-year-olds had already been exposed to “degrading”, violent or explicit sexual material. The report also noted an interlinking web of negative on-line influences which included sexually explicit, violent, self-destructive (pro-anorexia and pro-self-harming sites) and pro-suicide material.
The subsequent report called for an “urgent” meeting of British internet service providers (ISPs), public institutions and government in order to coordinate some active response in the face of the closing technological gap between internet, camera, cable, portable data-storage devices and smart phone platforms — all of which enable destructive and abusive material to be more explicitly, readily and privately accessed.
The inquiry also identified an “exploding” problem created by the converging interface between media forms, which means that pornography is no longer flowing in a simple one-way traffic — from producer to user. The report found that over 12 per cent of young teenagers were creating their own porn images and “sexting” explicit messages or photos of themselves.
Other inquiries have confirmed this as well, with reports of children and teenagers creating their own “child” pornography by exploiting and abusing other under-age sexual partners and younger siblings or relatives.
Expert testimony presented to the latest British inquiry has revealed that, in the world of children particularly, the seamless interaction between pornography and social networking sites and chat-rooms has destroyed forever the consoling fiction that there is an ethical and psychological Rubicon between mental images and virtual “fantasy” on one side and embodied acting out of abusive sexual activity on the other. It is an almost invisible divide for many adults in any event.
Furthermore, as a result of the greater “portability” of on-line material, there is a great increase in the “privatisation” of children’s access. For children this privatisation is not, as some well-meaning parents imagine, a place of trust and maturity. Rather, it exposes them more readily to the grooming and manipulation of predatory on-line abusers.
The inquiry found that over 60 per cent of 11-to-16-year-olds have on-line access in their own rooms, which is twice the figure reported in 2004. Among the 7-10 age group over 41 per cent have private access to the internet, compared to 9 per cent in 2004.
It is this violent disruption of the “cosy” private bedroom zone about which the inquiry heard a fairly unified expression of concern.
The report said: “Repeatedly, witnesses raised concerns over the type of pornography available, described as ‘not porn as we know it’, and also told the panel of the ease with which users can click through a hierarchy of imagery to reach violent, degrading and coercive material.”
The inquiry also heard from a variety of adolescent health professionals and clinicians. The mental health fall-out and the social dysfunction caused by early use of pornography was well attested by them. One clinic reported that over 25 per cent of its patients were not only using, but were compulsively “dependent”, upon increasingly extreme forms of pornography.
The report observed: “Overuse of pornographic material has been shown to desensitise children and young people to violent or sexually aggressive acts, diminish sympathy for victims of sexual assault and reduce children’s own inhibitions, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.”
The cross-party inquiry devoted the remainder of its deliberations to the practical and ethical duties expected of national (British) internet service providers (ISPs), the resources and education which parents needed in order to take the lead in protecting their children, and the mounting technical difficulties associated with various forms of internet filtering.
The report called on the government to take a more active role in providing principles upon which safety devices and systems might be installed, perhaps in a way analogous to the guidelines of health promotion campaigns.
It said: “Government and industry representatives should draw up guidelines for improving the communication of existing internet safety settings, improving training for retailers, developing a family-friendly kite-marking scheme for manufacturers and retailers, and improving signposting to pre-installed security settings during device configuration.”
The chair of the cross-party parliamentary inquiry was Mrs Claire Perry, MP for the constituency of Devizes in England’s south-west. She was recently dubbed one of the Conservative party’s new cohort of “Iron Ladies” by the British political think-tank, Demos.
A mother of three herself, Mrs Perry expressed a particular concern for the sense of “parental powerlessness”.
At the conclusion of the inquiry she identified the problem that parents and other caring adults frequently reported, which was their inability to keep up with the technological proficiency of children who had been born and raised within totally digitalised culture.
She said in her media release: “While parents should be responsible for their children’s online safety, in practice people find it difficult to put content filters on the plethora of internet-enabled devices in their homes, plus families lack the right information and education on internet safety.”
The inquiry’s recommendations acknowledged and demonstrated the vexing ideological and practical difficulties of ISP-level filtering and government intervention.
If there is any criticism to be made of the report, it is its attempt to tip-toe around any defining statement about the ethics of the “adult” use of pornography. This meant that any discussion of “filters” was sidetracked by those arguing for the right of access to so-called “respectable pornography”.
Much discussion was devoted to the “watershed” in a young person’s age, after which pornography mysteriously changed from being a destructive influence to being an apparently neutral or desirable consumable.
The report at times based its assumptions upon fairly narrow libertarian values. It proclaimed: “Underpinning the system are core principles — almost religious tenets — of decentralisation and freedom which mean that every piece of information and content is available and accessible somewhere. It would be anathema to see these principles compromised.”
A number of internet service providers and porn-site managers attempted to defend before the panel of inquiry an absolute freedom of speech right for their “businesses”. However, they failed to acknowledge that “freedom of speech” is not absolute within democracies but is modified in the interests of the common good by instruments such as defamation, copyright and perjury laws.
The inquiry did well in the face of these challenges to tackle the question of freedom of access and to offer some fairly positive recommendations.
It said: “The Government should launch a formal consultation on the introduction of an Opt-In content filtering system for all internet accounts in the UK. The most effective way to reduce overall development cost and create the most flexible solution would be for ISPs to work together to develop a self-regulated solution.”
The inquiry recognised that in many Western countries subscribers must actively, and only with considerable application and technological know-how, “opt-out” of so-called open access via their server.
Such access does not lead to “neutral freedom” but exposes both unsuspecting adults and children to extreme pornography and violence. So this recommendation of the inquiry at least offers a default position of some protection within the community.
It would have been ideal if the British inquiry had encountered some of the more trenchant critiques of contemporary on-line pornography, and of the commercial global interests that generate and promote it.
The contributions of some leading anti-pornography feminist commentators, virtue ethicists and citizen action groups, such as Australia’s Collective Shout, would have added greater depth to the inquiry’s social and philosophical understanding of the active and proselytising nature of “porn culture”.
There is, however, in the report a refreshing recognition of some difficult realities about 21st-century life.
Pornography is no longer a raging external fire outside the perimeter of the home or school culture — but a series of unpredictable self-igniting spot fires within our private spaces.
Anna Krohn is an educator and educational writer, and is currently a tutor in ethics in the department of nursing at the Australian Catholic University, Ballarat campus, Victoria.
Reg Bailey, Letting Children Be Children: Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood (June 2011).
Final report of a British cross-party Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection: Findings and Recommendations, published April 17, 2012.