Friday 27 September 2013

One to watch

This week Channel 4 begins its Real Sex Season which, it claims, will ‘reclaim sex from pornography’.  A laudable aim but, given Channel 4’s history, I am sceptical that this is what will be delivered.  This is the channel which bought us Drugs Live, Dogging Tales and The Joy of Teen Sex, all of which were heavy on titillation and light on educational value.  This season, which promises us the luridly titled Sex Box and Date My Porn Star, looks like it may be more of the same.

However, at the risk of becoming a hostage to fortune, one of the programmes does look very interesting:

Porn on the Teenage Brain is a documentary written and presented by Martin Daubney, who resigned his position as editor of lad’s magazine Loaded after becoming a father and realising that he wanted nothing more to do with the world of soft porn that he'd been peddling for over a decade.

In his film Mr Daubney sets out to understand the reality of the pornography today’s young people are consuming because it’s free and an unregulated click away.  He also investigates what effect it has on their malleable brains and the ways in which they relate to each other.

Mr Daubney has written a moving article about his experience of making the film in the Daily Mail which we commend to you.  He says:

“I was profoundly saddened by what I had witnessed. While teenage boys will always be fascinated by, and curious about, sex, what's now considered 'normal' by under-18s is an entirely distorted view of intercourse and the way relationships should be conducted.  It seemed as if the children's entire expectation of sex had been defined by what they see in online porn. “

Research undertaken for the film found that the vast majority of UK teens had seen online sexual imagery or pornographic films.  Brain scans carried out for the programme also found that the compulsive users of porn showed the same signs of addiction in their brain as those hooked on alcohol or drugs.

The reward centre of the brain is fully developed by the time we're teenagers, but the part of the brain that regulates our urges - the pre-frontal cortex - isn't fully developed until our mid-20s. The brains of teenagers are not wired to say ‘stop’; they are wired to want more. The implications of this study are profoundly troubling.

“If porn does have the insidious power to be addictive, then letting our children consume it freely via the internet is like leaving heroin lying around the house, or handing out vodka at the school gates” says Mr Daubney.

 “Could it even have a wider impact on their lives, blighting their ability to function in the world, get good qualifications and jobs?”

The programme airs at 10pm on Channel 4 on Monday 30th.   It does not promise to be an ‘easy’ watching experience but, given that legal porn now accounts for a third of global internet traffic, it is important that we are informed about what is involved and its possible consequences.

In the words of Martin Daubney: “Like many parents, I fear that my boy's childhood could be taken away by pornography. So we have to fight back.”

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Online conduct is just as damaging as online content


It has recently been reported that ATVOD, the video services regulator, will be meeting with financial organisations to discuss the blocking of payments to websites which fail to stop children accessing online pornography.

This proposal is intended to target the growing exposure of children to hard-core pornography which, although legal, is highly explicit.  Some websites require users wishing to access this material to verify their age but many others offer free unrestricted access and these are the sites, many of which are hosted overseas,  which the new regulations seek to target.

ATVOD report that the financial services firms have been given a “very positive response” to the proposal.  Credit card companies already monitor illegal pornographic websites and liaise with CEOP and the Internet Watch Foundation but this will be the first time that banks and credit card companies have been asked to police legal material.

It hoped a voluntary deal can be reached but government sources have indicated that Ministers would be prepared to consider legislation if necessary.  Ministers are also backing efforts to encourage the internet industry to develop ways of verifying the age of individuals viewing websites.

This is very exciting news and we are really delighted that the government continues to make online child protection a priority.  This proposal, along with the recent ‘default-on’ measures will make a real difference to children’s accesses to potentially harmful content.

However these new measures will have minimal effect on harmful contact and conduct which remain a major concern

Also in the news are reports that cyber-blackmailers are abusing hundreds of children in the UK.   Abusers posing online as children talk victims into sexual acts or sharing of images, then threaten to send pictures to the child's family and friends.  Occasionally the demands are financial but more often victims are forced into ever more disturbing sexual activity or self-harm.

This is, of course, illegal and is a police matter.  It is some small consolation that a group of men are about to stand trial in an undisclosed, non-European country for inciting children to commit abusive sexual acts. But the numbers involved in that single operation are a horrifying insight into the scale of the problem: of the 490 children targeted worldwide some 322 were blackmailed, 96 of whom were in Britain.  And the same vast geographic reach of the exploitation that makes it so peculiarly disturbing also makes it difficult to police.

There is still much to be done to help children both identify the dangers and disentangle themselves if they become embroiled in a situation beyond their control.  Criminal exploitation is not the only online problem in need of a remedy; cyberbullying that sees children abusing and victimising each other can be just as devastating in its effect as illustrated by the sad case of Hannah Smith who killed herself in August following abuse on question-and-answer site

Social media sites can, and must, do more but there is a desperate need for education.  That means better-informed parents and schools tackling the subject formally.  

We are delighted that the work we are doing with The Children and Families Media Education Trust has an important role to play in this.  Our work with parents and in schools will help to make a difference.  We have to teach children that the ‘stranger danger’ message is just as applicable online as it in the street.   They must be taught that, no matter what, there are adults who can help them and they must also learn that online bullying is as unacceptable and destructive as its offline counterpart.

If you, or anyone you know, has experience of online abuse then The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee would be interested in hearing from you as part of its inquiry into online safety.  The Committee is seeking evidence and opinions on preventing abusive or threatening comments on social media.  Your thoughts would be much valued and you can find out more here.

Friday 13 September 2013

A victory for parents

In the past we have been vocal about the way in which television programmes aimed at family audiences have featured increasingly sexualised content.  Over the past few years we have seen a contestants stripping and lap dancing on Saturday evening talent shows and, on each occasion, the programme would be cleared by Ofcom of breaching the Broadcasting Code which is in place to protect children from unsuitable material.

Over the past year we have written expressing our concern to the programmes, the regulator and the Prime Minister’s special advisor on preventing the sexualisation of childhood.

We have pointed out that television programmes which are marketed at children yet contain explicit material are making a significant contribution to the culture in which children are becoming increasingly sexualised.  We am delighted to report that finally our concerns have been noted.

This week Ofcom at last rebuked ITV for showing nudity before the watershed in one of its flagship reality shows.  The regulator found that ITV had crossed a ‘clear line’ when it showed a burlesque dancer’s naked bottom before the watershed.  Ofcom said the scenes were seen by a ‘significant child audience’ and concluded the episode breached its code, which states: ‘Children must…be protected by appropriate scheduling from material that is unsuitable’.

As our Director, Vivienne Pattison, told the Daily Mail this week, ‘it is a victory for parents who are concerned about what their children are being exposed to before the watershed. Finally we have a clear signal that it has got to stop.’

We are delighted that this judgement has now been made and we hope that, should further similar breaches occur, Ofcom will not hesitate to fine broadcasters.  This is not just about a bare bottom on television – however undesirable that may be in a programme aimed at children. 

This is about our society taking stock and saying, no, we want a public space which is free from overtly sexual images.   We don’t want our children to be forced to grow up prematurely.  Tiny incremental changes over the years have led us to the position in which we find ourselves today; images which were once considered to be soft-core porn are now called advertising and sexual freedoms which once looked empowering now seem oppressive.  It’s time to apply the brakes.

Ofcom’s decision follows the Government’s announcement of measures to protect children from pornography and the Co-op’s decision not to carry material with sexualised cover images.  There is still much to be done but we sense a sea-change in public attitudes and that can only be a good thing.