New report by Children’s Commissioner for England identifies links between children’s experiences of pornography and subsequent harmful sexual behaviour or abuse
9th May 2023: Testimonies from young people exploring the links between watching violent pornography and experiencing harmful sexual behaviours are highlighted in a new report published today by the Children’s Commissioner for England.
The research, which contains unique analysis of documents containing accounts of sexual violence between children, presents a “compelling” case in exploring the most serious possible consequences of unrestricted access to pornography in childhood and the troubling role it may play in influencing harmful sexual behaviour between children – or even the type of abuse carried out.
Using data from children’s own testimonies about cases of child sexual abuse, obtained from one police force and one Sexual Abuse Referral Clinic (SARC) under the Children’s Commissioner’s statutory powers, the report finds reference to specific acts of sexual violence commonly found in pornography in 50% of the cases examined within the documents, such as strangulation, choking or slapping.
Manual review of a sample of 32 police transcripts also found instances of both police and children drawing direct links between the incident of abuse and the abuser’s exposure to pornography. In several interviews, children who had harmed acknowledged that their exposure to pornography was excessive or unhealthy. Two children who had been harmed said that they felt they had been treated “like a porn star” by their abuser.
While the factors influencing child sexual abuse or violence are complex and multi-faceted, the report adds important new evidence to the crucial debate about children’s access to harmful content online, based on children’s own words and experiences, captured in police interview transcripts and medical or forensic reports.
Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said:
“For too long we have brushed the issue of pornography under the carpet as awkward, uncomfortable, or too difficult to solve – but we cannot shy away from discussing the nature, scale and impacts of online pornography.
“My last report showed just how early in their lives children are seeing violent pornography and the way this often distorts their views on relationships and sex. What this compelling new evidence now shows is that these acts commonly taking place in pornography are also occurring in terrible cases of child sexual abuse and violence.
“When we combine that with what children and young people themselves tell us about the influence porn has on their behaviour and wellbeing, I believe we have a stronger case than ever for bringing in the most robust protections for children online.
“No child should be able to access or watch pornography. Passing the Online Safety Bill must be a priority if we are to protect children quickly and effectively – but it is also just one part of the essential and urgent work of protecting children from sexual abuse.”
Listening to the experiences and voices of child victims of abuse is central to understanding where better support is required, and to determine more about the role pornography may play at this sharpest end of abuse cases. This is a fundamental part of the Children’s Commissioner’s role and she, with her office, will be working with young victims to make wider recommendations about what needs to change.
Today’s new evidence comes as the Online Safety Bill returns to the House of Lords for further amendments around children’s exposure to pornography. It is the second in a series investigating the impact of pornography on young people, building on the Children’s Commissioner’s report published in January 2023, “A lot of it is actually just abuse”, which set out findings from a survey of over a thousand 16-21-year-olds and focus groups with teenagers.
That survey established that the average age of first exposure to pornography is now just 13 years old, with substantial proportions of young people surveyed having seen it at a much younger age, and showed the detrimental impact this exposure is having on children and young people’s wellbeing. Qualitative research carried out with teenagers found that pornography exposure is related to the age at which teenagers are given their own phone.
The Children’s Commissioner has previously raised concerns about children’s access to mobile phones. Evidence suggests that 38% of children who have seen pornography, had stumbled across pornography accidentally online, often on social media sites like Twitter. These sites aim to hold users’ attention and keep them on the site for as long as possible, however there are concerns that, in the world of online pornography, this can result in an escalation of preferences towards content which is increasingly deviant and extreme.
The Children’s Commissioner has made a series of recommendations to better protect children from harmful content. This includes:
- The Online Safety Bill should ensure all platforms which host pornography have robust age verification on adult content in place, and that requirements to protect children from online pornography are consistent across all services.
- The Victims and Prisoners Bill should ensure that every child victim of crime is entitled to support from an advocate, including specialist advocacy from a Children’s Independent Sexual Violence Advocate if they have been the victim of sexual abuse.
- The Code of Practice, which will sit alongside the Victims and Prisoners Act, must set out specific guidance on how children’s rights under the Code will be met, taking into account children’s needs, developmental stage, and additional vulnerabilities.
- Relationships Sex and Health Education (RSHE) teaching should take a safeguarding-first approach and be overseen by the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) in each school.