Type in any common female name, or word for sweet (such as lollipop) or flower (such a blue orchid), and a few more clicks can bring up sites that open onto a world of eye-searing pornography, including images of child rape and other acts of sexual torture. These are not sites restricted to private systems that require credit card payments or age verification; these are easily accessible by children. It is estimated that 12 % of 5 to 7 year olds and 16% o 8 to 17 year olds have unintentionally stumbled onto any of the estimated 250 million pages of pornography on the internet, while 38% of older teens admit to seeking out such sites. This is a far cry from the pile of magazines their parents would have stashed under their childhood mattresses.
In chat rooms frequented by children, it takes only minimal personal details for someone anywhere in the world to be alerted when a targeted child goes online and then instigate a conversation to explore and exploit the child's interests and insecurities. Research across several countries shows that 31% of young people aged 9 to 19 years who go online at least once a week have received uninvited sexual comments.
Accordingly to the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, Ofcom, 66% of parents say they are concerned about what a child might access on the internet, and uppermost on their lists of concerns is exposure to sexually explicit material. Awareness that graphic, violent pornography is available on the internet, combined with uncertainty as to what impact that material may have on their children's - particularly their sons' - emotional and intellectual development, raises anxiety about internet discipline and control and protection.
Helen has three sons, Sam, aged 13, Jake, aged 15, and Gary, aged 16. All three boys display the internet nous characteristic of the young people who form part of what is commonly referred to as "the internet generation". Jake helps his mother download music onto her ipod and access that episode of Desperate Housewives she missed. Sam uses his skill with graphics software to format Jake's history coursework. Gary, who is dyslexic, has had his schoolwork transformed with the use of a special software programme that works with him to improve his spelling and grammar. Computers with web access are part of young people's lives, yet for Helen they also pose undefined dangers.
"There is so much out there on the internet and it's hard for a parent to monitor what children are exposed to. It's easy for kids to come across porn, whether they're looking for it or not. When their friends recommend a pornographic website, it's tempting for them to take a look. But, what then? I don't want to be a control freak. I want to show my boys that I trust them. It's just that the porn out there is truly awful, and it's upsetting to think about my boys coming into contact with it, even though it's an inevitable rite of passage."
While Helen puzzles over the balance between the benefits of free use of the internet on the one hand and overseeing her sons' activities on the other, Ann, mother of 13-year-old Tom, gives primary weight to her role as protector. "As a mum I want to keep him safe. It's scary to think that his innocence could be stolen away in the safety of his own room. I keep the filters locked and I track of the sites he visits. Those sites are toxic. You can see boys whose heads are filled with that stuff. I want to keep my own boy away from that corruption."
There is every reason to condemn pornography as an industry when it coerces, drugs or enslaves its workers, but over a period of years, in many different regions, links between pornography and sex crimes and negative attitudes towards women have been investigated, and at no time, in no region, have links between pornography, sex crimes and negative attitudes towards women been found. [see Milton Diamond's piece in The Scientist, 10 March 2010] Ann blanches with surprise when I tell her that research shows no causal link in adults between pornography - even violent pornography - and sexual criminality; her face reddens with angry disbelief when I explain that in some regions increased access to pornography has been shown to be correlated with reduce the incidence of sex crime.
Such findings are counter-intuitive, and few parents accept their validity. Ann concludes that there is something wrong with the research, perhaps "sex crimes" are too narrowly defined, and besides, she argues, everyone knows such crimes are under-reported. Phil, who also makes use of increasingly sophisticated internet filters, and who wants to protect both his son 13-year-old son and his 11-year old daughter, whose "sociability and curiosity, combined with her very trusting nature, make her vulnerable," demands whether studies have also been done on children, whose sexuality remain diffuse, inchoate and easily exploited.
Most children explore some pornography at some time of their life, and there is no statistical evidence that it causes specific harm. Of course what matters is how a child engages with this material. A passing curiosity may be easily satisfied and the interest abandoned; but sexual images have a special vividness and power, and may become addictive, as can many other internet activities, such as chatting or shopping or gaming. Personal accounts by young people and parents of obsession with pornography are disturbing: "It almost lodges itself into your mind, like a parasite sucking away the rest of your life," explains 16-year-old Malcolm, who participated in a 2007 study and reported spending between three and four hours each day visiting pornographic sites.
In addition to the prospect unwholesome distraction is concern about distorted attitudes towards sex and towards women. "My boys are so sweet and loving towards me and their girl cousins," Helen reflects. "The notion that girls or women are somehow lesser beings or mere objects of desire doesn't occur to them. I want to preserve that. We are trying to bring our children up to respect themselves and other people and to see that sex has consequences for people you care about, and who care about you. Allowing teenage boys to watch people flaunting sexual activity and displaying themselves and trying to titillate others with their antics is not the way to instil respect for others."
This concern about teaching respect is key to anxiety about the prevalence of internet pornography. And here research as to the importance of respect is strongly on the side of parental intuition. In the UK, the pregnancy rate among teenagers aged 15 to 19 years is 27 per 1000. In the Netherlands, the pregnancy rate of teenagers the same age is 5 per 1000. This difference appears to hinge on the very different reasons teenage boys in the UK and the Netherlands give for having sex. In the Netherlands, 56% of teenage boys say that their reason for having sex is love and commitment to a relationship, whereas the UK, love and commitment are seen by only 14% of boys in the UK as a reason for having sex. Young people in Holland become sexually active at the same age teens do in the UK - a lot younger than parents would like - but while 85% of teens in Holland use contraception the first time they have intercourse, only 50% in the UK do so. Associating sex with love and commitment results in more considerate and careful sexual behaviour.
Surely pornography interferes with such respect for others, particularly for sexual partners? Pornography ticks all the boxes for objectifying other people. In pornography, a sex partner is treated as a tool for one's own purposes; the partner is interchangeable, valued only for the provision of pleasure; the partner's subjectivity is obliterated as she or he becomes a husk of sexual receptiveness, presumed to be useable for anything one desires. Nevertheless, internet pornography cannot be the cause of the significant difference between teens in the UK and the Netherlands, since the number of Dutch pornography sites is higher than in the UK.
The greater issues arise when pornography enters mainstream culture, and joins forces with embedded stereotypes of female compliance and desirability and adult male authority and sexual domination over boys, girls and women alike. In the context of our entire culture, the moral panic over internet pornography seems like a deflection from much broader issues. The UK/ Holland comparison of teenage pregnancy rates shows that respect can be taught even when pornography is part of the complex social mix. One obvious recommendation to promote respect is to extend sexual education far beyond biology, and emphasize its interpersonal context. Another more controversial recommendation is to teach young people how to think about pornography; in particular, they could develop critical tools to link pornographic images to themes of political and social power, to identify the broader context in which others' pain appears pleasurable, and to de-code the thrill of female or child helplessness. These critical tools would be useful for all media material.
Generations in conflict
Young people generally shrug off their parents' concern. Only 30% of young people themselves are disturbed about "what's out there", compared to 66% of parents. While parents' risk agenda is focused largely on pornography, young people themselves are more concerned about bullying, identity abuse and racial hatred. So, when parents restrict internet use, awful battles can ensue. When Cally set up a password to prohibit all online access as a punishment for her 15-year old son's bad behaviour, she says, "It was effective, but it was painful for everyone." Taking away internet access is like cutting a child off from the centre of their world. Ann notes that with a filter system Tom "feels left out, because he can't visit the sites his friends do. He says he feels like the most stupid kid in school because he can't be part of the community chat rooms. He says that everyone else's parents trust them. He asks why I think he can't deal with things as well as his friends. And that's a hard one to answer."
"Everyone else's parents let them do this," and "I can deal with things," are phrases familiar to most parents of teens. In some cases, young people display the innocent hubris familiar in risk-denying teens. In one breath, Jake assures me that he has never stumbled upon porn sights, and that, if he did, he'd just be a click away from closing it, and in the next breath he tells me that he and everyone he knows have unwittingly come across porn sites, either with a pop up box or a disguised link which then won't respond "to the close or minimise click and that can be horrible when your dad walks into the room. He's a real prude, and then he tells Mum, and she goes, `Ooo, those awful people are preying on my little boy, I think the entire world is about to end."
As teens inch towards independence, they may not want to be reminded that they are vulnerable, and so they are quick to mock parents' fears. Denial is one way of preserving their courage and confidence during a phase of their lives in which they are plagued by self-doubt, yet most parents also believe there is a point at which e-safety restrictions create the risk of impeding a child's creativity and confidence in using the internet.
Some psycvhologists likens danger on the internet to the danger of crossing the road, which parents allow a child to do on his own, even knowing that risks remain, when they feel they have taught him to be careful enough. But to many parents this analogy is unsatisfactory. "You can see the whole field when you teach a child about road safety," Cally explains. "You can list the dangers, and watch you child doing it himself. You yourself have a great deal of relevant experience. But with the web - they know more than you do, and you don't know what they might find. It's easy to feel helpless, and that's what makes me strict." Parents keep returning to their lack of knowledge relative to that of their children: "We can't keep track of what's out there." And many parents discovers that a usually trustworthy child fails to keep even the basic rules of e-safety, such as, "Never give your personal details online," and, "Never talk to strangers online," and, "Tell your parents when you come across inappropriate material."
There is no single recommended approach to addressing young people's internet access. Parents' different strategies arise not simply from different styles of discipline or the different weight they assign to different risks; individual differences in their children tend to shape parents' approach. Some children are more curious about internet porn than others, and some children are more vulnerable than others, or more obsessive than others. Hence, Helen sets different rules for Sam, who is more private by nature and more intense than her other sons. Sam has to use the computer in the shared family area, and has no internet access in his room. "This may seem unfair," she admits, "but as a parent, you know your child very well, and the dangers out there may seem more imminent for some children than for others."
The internet has a massive impact on our society, and children, curious, creative and quick to learn, carry innovation forward. With this useful tool come new risks of exposure and temptation - to gamble, to talk to strangers, to satisfy sexual curiosity in ways that risk distorting the lessons we would like to teach our children about the meaning of sex and the imperative of respect. The web facilitates learning and communication, but it also provides distractions from interpersonal activities, exercise and sleep. It may have long-term affect on patterns of attention and reward systems for learning. Today's young people may form the internet generation, but they are still children who grow within and are shaped by relationships of love and care, and through these relationships young people seek understanding of their world. Young people are not passive receivers of material; they, too, seek ways of resisting social messages that sexualize and confuse them. The challenge is to help them develop this resistance.
A version of this piece appeared in the Independent Magazine