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On the final day of the Children’s Commissioner’s online safety week, the Commissioner shares detail about her new research into the role of pornography in shaping harmful behaviours among children.

When I took on my role as Children’s Commissioner, in March 2021, I already knew that there was a serious issue with sexual harassment and abuse among young people. Through career as a teacher, a school head, and a trust leader I had seen these behaviours first-hand. Yet I don’t think any of us anticipated the deluge of testimonies to the Everyone’s Invited website, which filled with tens of thousands of stories in the weeks following the murder of Sarah Everard.

The stories on Everyone’s Invited describe a world of relentless “slut-shaming”, intimate image abuse, harmful group dynamics and sexual assault. I know how stressful and scary this can be for young people, particularly girls. I was determined to use my platform and statutory power as Children’s Commissioner to combat the fundamental drivers behind harmful behaviour.

Over the past 18-months I have spoken to children, teenagers, young adults, and their parents. I have also gathered representatives of adult sites and social media platforms, and I have consulted with academics and experts in the third sector to understand what is causing this harm.

Online pornography emerged as a key theme throughout these conversations. Pornography is just one click away for many young people. I share others’ concerns that pornography is fundamentally changing how young people understand relationships, consent, and intimate relationships.

I think that is a shocking fact that we still have no legal protections for children from online pornography. The dangers of pornography to children have been clear for a long time now. Yet legislation – in this country, and internationally – has been slow to catch up.

I truly believe that we will look back in 20 years’ time at what children were exposed to online, and be shocked.

The Online Safety Bill is due to pass this Parliamentary session. The Bill will impose a duty on any platform hosting pornographic content to robustly verify the age of their users.

To inform the ongoing debate around age verification and pornography I am conducting new research into the impact of adult content on harmful sexual behaviour among young people. I will publish findings from a new survey on teenagers’ exposure to pornography and the impact that it has on their attitudes and behaviours, and my team will be speaking to young people to understand these issues in greater depth.

Next year I will use my statutory powers to request data from Police and Health services on children who have been referred for child-on-child abuse, to understand the role that pornography is playing in this sharpest end of cases.

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