This paper, the first in a series of research reports, makes clear the urgent need to protect children from the harms of online pornography. It is my duty as Children’s Commissioner to champion young people’s views and voices, and to ensure that all children enjoy the freedom to grow up safely and happily, both online and in the real world.
This report does not make for easy reading, but nor should it. I truly believe that we will look back in 20 years and be shocked by the content to which children were exposed.
Throughout my career as school-leader I have witnessed the harmful impact of pornography on young people. I will never forget the girl who told me about her first kiss with her boyfriend, aged 12, who strangled her. He had seen it in pornography and thought it normal.
Let me be absolutely clear: online pornography is not equivalent to a ‘top-shelf’ magazine. The adult content which parents may have accessed in their youth could be considered ‘quaint’ in comparison to today’s world of online pornography. Depictions of degradation, sexual coercion, aggression and exploitation are commonplace, and disproportionately targeted against teenage girls.
I am deeply concerned about the normalisation of sexual violence in online pornography, and the role that this plays in shaping children’s understanding of sex and relationships.
Between 2021-22 I led a Government-commissioned review into online sexual harassment and abuse, which involved speaking to children and young people about peer-perpetrated sexual violence. Young people told me, in unequivocal terms, that harmful behaviour is directly influenced by violent pornography.
This report draws together research from focus groups with teenagers aged 13-19 and a survey of 1,000 young people aged 16-21. Of the 64% who said that they had ever seen online pornography:
- We find that pornography exposure is widespread and normalised – to the extent that children cannot ‘opt-out’. The average age at which children first see pornography is 13. By age nine, 10% had seen pornography, 27% had seen it by age 11 and half of children who had seen pornography had seen it by age 13.
- We also find that young people are frequently exposed to violent pornography, depicting coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sex acts; 79% had encountered violent pornography before the age of 18. Young people expressed concern about the implications of violent pornography on their understanding of the difference between sexual pleasure and harm. Indeed, this report finds that frequent users of pornography are more likely to engage in physically aggressive sex acts.
- Pornography is not confined to dedicated adult sites. We found that Twitter was the online platform where young people were most likely to have seen pornography. Fellow mainstream social networking platforms Instagram and Snapchat rank closely after dedicated pornography sites.
At the time of publication, the UK’s landmark Online Safety Bill is making its way through Parliament. It holds the promise of, finally, regulating pornography sites and ensuring that they implement robust age verification to protect children. Now is a vital moment to ensure that we understand the impact of pornography on children’s lives, and to legislate for a commensurate response.
I would like to thank the young people who participated in this research for their time, honesty and bravery in talking about this difficult subject. I very much hope that your voices will inform the development of legislation and regulation and will make the online world a safer place.
I urge every adult reader in responsible position – whether politician or policymaker, parent or teacher – to listen and take seriously the views of young people contained within this report. It is crucial that we do not miss the opportunity to make the internet safe for all children, today and in the future.