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Column: We should follow Britain’s lead and crack down on internet porn

David Cameron is planning an extensive crackdown on widespread access to online pornography – we must recognise the intense harm sexually explicit material has on children and follow suit, writes Ashley Balbirnie.

Image: Nixx Photography via Shutterstock

LIKE MANY IRISH people, I would be reluctant to take my lead from the British Prime Minister on matters concerning our citizens – but this week David Cameron, recognising the risk posed to young people, has presented an extensive crack down on widespread access to harmful online pornography.

He announced measures in the UK which oblige Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide default filters blocking pornographic material where adults would have to opt in to receive access to such material. This is intended to assist in the safeguarding of their most vulnerable citizens; children, from the many graphic and harmful pornographic materials on the internet.

Why are we not safeguarding our children?

But why isn’t this something that is being considered seriously in Ireland, to safeguard our own children? The initial reaction from our Communications Minister in response to the UK’s plans was at best disappointing and at worst completely inexcusable. Is access to harmful material online not an issue for children in Ireland? Of course it is.

In the ISPCC we are not technology specialists. We can’t tell you how such filters as proposed in the UK will operate or how they are put in place. We don’t know what the cost is or how workable a restraint it will be. But what we do know is that viewing graphic and violent pornographic material online is extremely harmful to children and we believe strongly that introducing such filters in Ireland is an option worth at least some serious consideration.

Children are not emotionally mature enough to handle graphic material

A recent EU Kids Online survey reported that 1 in 5 teenagers in Ireland had viewed sexual images on the internet while the ISPCC reported in 2011 that half of all young people questioned in our own survey use the internet 1-3 hours every day and a large proportion of those do so alone, in their bedroom without any supervision. The internet is here to stay and it is embedded in our young people’s lives. We cannot and we must not leave them unsupported, unguided and open to stumbling across violent and frightening pornographic material online.

Some young people who have called Childline to talk about this have reported seeing pornographic material by accident, when searching for something else, while others through peer pressure have felt forced to watch graphic and disturbing scenes which left them feeling uneasy, frightened and confused. During their early teen years young people are malleable and are developing their sense of self. They are not emotionally mature enough to decipher content that is both graphic and inappropriate for their age.

They must not be left to try to interpret this alone. As parents we have a central role to play in this by keeping communication open with our young people but government and ISPs owe it to society, and the young people within it, to investigate how best to safeguard them from the detrimental impact such viewing can have.

This is a battle worth fighting

This is absolutely an issue worth fighting for; it deserves more than a lukewarm response from our decision makers. They must endeavour to understand how and why filtering and other relevant approaches can ensure better online safety for children in Ireland. The world is filled with sophisticated technology and evolved intelligent minds working on all manner of tools and software – this is something that can be tackled. Whether Ireland addresses it as David Cameron proposes or a slightly altered version or even a different way altogether; the issue must be addressed.

The response to David Cameron’s proposals in the UK has been met with support and opposition. Whether or not he has started a war against harmful, violent pornography as some of his supporters have said, I don’t know. But I do know that it is still a battle well worth fighting and I put it to Ireland’s Government and Internet Service Providers to take cohesive action in analysing how best we can approach online safety, filtering and above all protecting children.

Ashley Balbirnie is the Chief Executive of the ISPCC. For more information on the organisation and its work, please can visit the ISPCC website or Facebook page.

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