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“Basically… porn is everywhere”: A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effects that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People By Miranda A.H. Horvath, Llian Alys, Kristina Massey, Afroditi Pina, Mia Scally and Joanna R. Adler

January 29, 2017

bpieThe Children’s Commissioner has a duty to promote the views and interests of all children in England, in particular those whose voices are least likely to be heard, to the people who make decisions about their lives.

This research, commissioned by the NSPCC and the children’s commissioner for England, said many teenagers were at risk of becoming desensitised to porn.

This report forms part of the Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups commenced by the Children’s Commissioner in October 2011, using powers made available under Section 3 of the Children Act 2004.

It found that about 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online, nearly all of whom (94%) had seen it by 14.

The researchers questioned 1,001 children aged 11 to 16 and found 65% of 15- to 16-year-olds reported seeing pornography, as did 28% of 11- to 12-year-olds.

They also discovered that it was more likely for the youngsters to find material accidentally (28%), for example via a pop-up advertisement, than to specifically seek it out (19%).

More than three-quarters of the children surveyed – 87% of the boys and 77% of the girls – felt pornography failed to help them understand consent, but most of the boys (53%) and 39% of girls saw it as a realistic depiction of sex.

Some of the children’s approach to sex was also informed by pornographic scenes, with more than a third (39%) of the 13- to 14-year-olds and a fifth of the 11- to 12-year-olds boys saying they wanted to copy the behaviour they had seen.

The report also found:

  • More boys than girls had viewed online pornography through choice
  • 135 (14%) of the young people who responded had taken naked and/or semi-naked images of themselves, and just over half of these (7% overall) had shared these images
  • Of those children who reported seeing online pornography, the greatest proportion (38%) had first seen it on a portable laptop, 33% through a mobile phone and just under a quarter (24%) on a desktop computer
  • Nearly 60% of the children and young people surveyed who had seen online pornography reported seeing it for the first time at home, followed by 29% who reported doing so at a friend’s house

Dr Elena Martellozzo, who co-led the research, said: “Although many children did not report seeing online pornography, it is worrying that some children came across it accidentally and could be sent it without seeking it.

“If boys believe that online pornography provides a realistic view of sexual relationships, then this may lead to inappropriate expectations of girls and women.

“Girls too may feel pressured to live up to these unrealistic, and perhaps non-consensual, interpretations of sex.

“There is a huge task ahead for parents, teachers and policymakers.

“We found that children and young people need safe spaces where they can freely discuss the full range of issues related to sex, relationships and the accessibility of online porn in the digital age.”

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said it was worrying that many children were exposed to pornography.

“Only now are we beginning to understand its impact on ‘smartphone kids’ – the first generation to have been raised with technology that’s taken the internet from the front room, where parents can monitor use, to their bedrooms or the playground, where they can’t,” she said.

“We know from the research that very many children are shocked, confused or disgusted by what they see, and it is our duty to help them to question, challenge and make sense of it.”

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “A generation of children are in danger of being stripped of their childhoods at a young age by stumbling across extreme and violent porn online. “Industry and government need to take more responsibility to ensure that young people are protected. Some companies have taken the initiative when it comes to online safety, and we will continue to put pressure on those that have not yet done so. Age-appropriate sex and relationship education in schools, dealing with issues such as online pornography and children sending indecent images, are crucial.”

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman said: “Keeping children safe online is one of government’s key priorities. Just as we do offline, we want to make sure children are prevented from accessing pornographic content online, which should only be viewed by adults. In the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill, we will bring in legislation that will require companies providing pornographic material online to make sure they have a robust age-verification system in place, so that those accessing their websites are over 18.”

But Paul Hall, a psychotherapist who specialises in addiction to porn said blocking explicit material altogether was not the answer. “I don’t think it is possible to ban pornography, that is just not realistic at all. Putting blockers in place, trying to restrict access to young people and vulnerable people obviously makes sense, but I think we’d be naive as a society to think that would stop young people from accessing it.”

The report does not provide any evidence of a link between porn consumption and sexual assault, but Family Lives’ Teen Boundaries programme, that educates children about healthy relationships said that more sex education could protect children from harmful effects. Anastasia de Waal, its chair, said: “The reality is that we could end up pushing young people towards porn because we’re not equipping them with the reality of sex education. It’s really clear that porn is plugging a gap when it comes to sex education. Young people are not able to find the information they need, and are seeking it out elsewhere.”

Having surveyed all the literature, the report avoids jumping to conclusions, realising that cause and effect are complex and lists many area which need further investigation.

Quotations:

It was mentioned by boys in witness statements after being apprehended for the rape of a child, one of whom said it was “like being in a porn movie”; we had frequent accounts of both girls’ and boys’ expectations of sex being drawn from pornography they had seen; and professionals told us troubling stories of the extent to which teenagers and younger children routinely access pornography, including extreme and violent images. We also found compelling evidence that too many boys believe that they have an absolute entitlement to sex at any time, in any place, in any way and with whomever they wish. Equally worryingly, we heard that too often girls feel they have no alternative but to submit to boys’ demands, regardless of their own wishes.

“I didn’t like it because it came on by accident and I don’t want my parents to find out and the man looked like he was hurting her. He was holding her down and she was screaming and swearing.”

A 13-year-old boy said: “One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos – not major – just a slap here or there.”

“It can make a boy not look for love, just look for sex, and it can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it,” said one 13-year-old girl.

Another 13-year-old girl said: “A few of my friends have used it for guidance about sex and are getting the wrong image of relationships.”

Porn is… providing an arousal in you. Stimulates ideas which make you want it more.

Makes out that how women are portrayed in pornography is correct and that women can be treated this way, offers a sense of entitlement – you might go up to a girl and just grab her boob ’cause you feel that you can.

A comparison of 284 male adolescent sexual abusers and 170 non-sexually offending delinquent youth (victims of sexual abuse were excluded from both samples) found that the sexual abusers reported more exposure to pornography before they were 10 years old than non-sexual abusers and were more likely to continue to use it as children and young people. However, there was no relationship between pornography consumption and sexual crime per se

We’re all victims of it.

Girls will get self-conscious about their boobs and boys about their dicks.

Educate children and young people.

Others have said:

Kieran, aged 15, said: “You get it on social media like Instagram, Snapchat, even things come up on Twitter like porn websites that you might accidentally click on.

“People who are 10 and 11 – they don’t know what it is and they click on it.”

Charlotte, 15, said: “Porn creates unreal expectations of what sex is like and on the relationship as well. They are pretty much perfect people and it does make us feel insecure about everything.”

Maddy, also 15, added: “Some people are getting pressured into having sex because of porn. It’s sort of expected, nowadays.”

What can we confidently conclude?

FINDING 1: A significant proportion of children and young people are exposed to or access pornography but there are differences in the literature regarding the regularity of  exposure and access (or the rate of recurrence) which highlight the importance of considering frequency as well as prevalence in order to obtain a full picture.

FINDING 2: Children and young people’s exposure and access to pornography occur both online and offline. However, in recent years the most common methods of access have changed from magazines, videos, television and books, with the internet becoming more dominant. There is some evidence that children and young people consider pornography easy to access and culturally prevalent. Accessing pornography through one method appears to be positively related to accessing it through others.

FINDING 3: Exposure and access to pornography appear to increase with age; there is greater risk of exposure with increasing age. Contradictory findings exist in relation to age of first exposure, with variations from 10 to 17 years old.

FINDING 4: Exposure is more prevalent than (ostensibly) deliberate access. However, there is considerable variation in the rates of unwanted exposure and some studies report significant numbers of children and young people accessing pornography.

FINDING 5: There are gender differences in exposure and access to pornography. Young men and boys are more likely to be exposed to pornography than young

women and girls. They are also more likely to access, seek or use pornography and are exposed to or access pornography more frequently. These gender differences are also found in children and young people’s attitudes towards pornography. Boys and young men generally view pornography more positively and state that they view it primarily out of curiosity while girls and young women generally report that it is unwelcome and socially distasteful and that they feel much more uncomfortable than boys and young men when viewing pornography.

FINDING 6: Access and exposure to pornography affect children and young people’s sexual beliefs. For example, pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex; maladaptive attitudes about relationships; more sexually permissive attitudes; greater acceptance of casual sex; beliefs that women are sex objects; more frequent thoughts about sex; sexual uncertainty (e.g. the extent to which children and young people are unclear about their sexual beliefs and values); and less progressive gender role attitudes (e.g. male dominance and female submission). Children and young people learn from and may change their behaviour due to exposure and access to pornography.

FINDING 7: Access and exposure to pornography are linked to children and young people’s engagement in “risky behaviours” (e.g. engagement in sexual practices from a younger age, engaging in riskier sexual behaviours such as unprotected anal or oral sex, and the involvement of drugs and alcohol in sex). For example, young people who used pornography were more likely to report having had anal sex, sex with multiple partners and using alcohol and drugs during sex. However, the majority of the research that has found this is cross-sectional and/or correlational, therefore causal relationships cannot be established. “Sexting” (which should be considered as comprising a range of activities) has recently emerged as another “risky behaviour” because it can lead to various negative outcomes for children and young people, including through its potential use within bullying and exploitation. The majority of the harassment that is a consequence of sexting is directed by young men towards young wome).

FINDING 8: Considering sexualised and violent imagery more broadly, we can conclude that exposure to sexualised and violent imagery affects children and young people;however, the ways in which they may be affected and how long-lasting the effects may be are debatable. There are links between violent attitudes and violent media; specifically, children and young people who hold more violent attitudes access more violent media. One study found that exposure to sexualised material was related to the likelihood of young people engaging in more sexualised behaviour because they perceived more social pressure to have sex.

There is more contradictory evidence concerning other issues. These issues are nonetheless important to note.

What are we less confident about?

The contexts in which young people are exposed to and access pornography appear to suggest that they can be both solitary and group activities, and that a range of motives and reasons can be ascribed to them. These findings may be less robust, particularly due to technological developments and trends in children and young people’s preferences at both the general and individual level.

Few studies have focused on the content of the pornography and whether there is anything particular about what children and young people are exposed to or access. Much current discourse is asserted without a clear evidence base or is inferred from what is believed to be available on pornographic websites. Different and subjective definitions of pornography complicate the issue, as does the possibility that studies will rapidly become out of date since trends develop and subside in the production of pornography. Nonetheless, the issue is of utmost importance given claims that pornography has become more hard core, explicitly degrading and dehumanising, and with a greater focus on aggressive sexual activity.

There are also contradictory findings regarding the possible effects of pornography on children and young people’s sexual expectations, but there is some emerging evidence indicating that young people are dissatisfied with the sex education they are receiving and that they are increasingly drawing on pornography, expecting it to educate and give information regarding sexual practices and norms. Only a few studies, or components of larger studies, have found that there are age differences in how children and young people process or are affected by pornography.

There is a reasonable amount of research that links exposure to pornography with aggressive behaviour. However, it is limited in its interpretive value. Fewer studies have investigated whether victimisation via aggressive behaviour is linked vicariously or directly to pornography. Even fewer studies have examined pornography’s relationship with sexual offending among children and young people, and hardly any have used non-offending control groups. Viewing pornography can lead to the development of antagonistic and unhealthy views towards women and sexuality and can contribute to creating environments of greater tolerance and less disapproval of unwanted sex. Pornography has been linked to sexually coercive behaviour among young people, and, for young women, viewing pornography is linked with higher rates of sexual harassment and forced sex. This may be because young people may not have the opportunity to compare what they see in pornography with real life and they may be more susceptible to internalising the distorted images and modifying their behaviour accordingly.

Research on children and young people’s perceptions of risk and danger, potentially associated with their access and/or exposure to pornography, reports mixed findings. Most consensus is found in relation to reports that children and young people are aware of the dangers of online pornography but feel that they have the necessary coping skills to deal with them. There appears to be a “third person effect”, with many young people reporting that people younger than themselves are in greater danger. Only a handful of research articles report young people holding positive attitudes towards pornography. Young women and girls in particular are more worried than young men and boys about the portrayal of gender relations in pornography and the connotations of objectification associated with that skewed portrayal.

Viewing sexualised and/or violent imagery can affect children and young people’s attitudes and behaviours, which may subsequently affect their attitudes towards sexual relationships and behaviours within them. However, the research is disparate in focus, with few studies directly examining attitudes towards relationships. It is possible to extrapolate, but the evidence is inconsistent. Highly contentious and contradictory findings also exist on the impact of violent imagery on children and young people, which may inform our understanding of the effects of pornography, but numerous methodological issues exist in the literature. The relationships between young people viewing violence and their attitudes and behaviours are complex and multifaceted.

There is emerging but contradictory evidence about the effects of other sexualised imagery on children and young people, through film, music, advertising and specialist media. Although not yet clear, we can infer that the format through which children and young people are exposed to sexualised media may be important.

Recommendations to Government

In light of the evidence in this report:

  1. The Department for Education should ensure that all schools understand the importance of, and deliver, effective relationship and sex education which must include safe use of the internet. A strong and unambiguous message to this effect should be sent to all education providers including: all state funded schools including academies; maintained schools; independent schools; faith schools; and further education colleges.
  2. The Department for Education should ensure curriculum content on relationships and sex education covers access and exposure to pornography, and sexual practices that are relevant to young people’s lives and experiences, as a means of building young people’s resilience. This is sensitive, specialist work that must be undertaken by suitably qualified professionals, for example, specialist teachers, youth workers or sexual health practitioners.
  3. The Department for Education should rename ‘sex and relationships education’ (SRE) to ‘relationships and sex education’ (RSE) to place emphasis on the importance of developing healthy, positive, respectful relationships.
  4. The Government, in partnership with internet service providers, should embark on a national awareness-raising campaign, underpinned by further research, to better inform parents, professionals and the public at large about the content of pornography and young people’s access of, and exposure to such content. This should include a message to parents about their responsibilities affording both children and young people greater protection and generating a wider debate about the nature of pornography in the 21st century and its potential impact.
  5. Through the commitments made to better protect girls and young women from gender-based violence in the ending violence against women and girls action plan, the Home Office and the Department for Education should commission further research into the safeguarding implications of exposure and/or access to pornography on children and young people, particularly in relation to their experiences of teenage relationship abuse and peer exploitation.
  1. The Home Office should incorporate the findings of this report into the ongoing teen abuse campaign. Future activity on this workstream should reflect young people’s exposure to violent sexualised imagery within their peer groups and relationships.

Recommendation to the Youth Justice Board

  1. The Youth Justice Board should include questions on exposure and access to pornography within the revised ASSET assessment tool, to better inform understanding of possible associations with attitudes and behaviour and improve the targeting of interventions for young people displaying violent, or sexually harmful, behaviours.

 

Very little of that research has considered its findings in terms of cultural differences or indeed acknowledged that there may have been some … ittle is known about the impact of cultural differences within or between different countries. Factors that may be relevant include how easy it was to obtain pornography traditionally and how this mirrors the uses of the internet and prevalence trends in different countries. Related to this, very few studies considered the impact that ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, sexual orientation and education may have on children and young people’s experiences. Even though these questions cannot be answered currently, it is important that future work follows them up.

a recent consultation on personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education by the Department for Education (2013) reported that many respondents felt that parents had primary responsibility for sex and relationships education (SRE) and as a result concluded that PSHE overall will remain a non-statutory subject. This decision, and the evidence upon which it was based, appears to be a missed opportunity. The major flaw in the analysis of the consultation responses appears to be the decision to weight all responses equally regardless of whether they were from one person or on behalf of an organisation with thousands of members. The decision itself has provoked “disappointed” reactions from many organisations working in the field (e.g. Accord Coalition, Brook, Relate, Sex Education Forum), as the decision not to make PSHE a statutory subject on the curriculum means that not all young people will have access to high-quality sex and relationships education and teachers will not receive extra training and support. This decision can be seen as being even more surprising in the light of the findings of this REA, which suggest not only that children and young people want more education and opportunity to discuss sex and relationships but also that many parents feel poorly equipped to help their children.

The report is online here

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