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Young people will see online porn – shouldn't we help them interpret it?

Rapidly advancing technology means children will be confronted by pornography online at some point. How should we help them to interpret what they see?

Pat McKenna

DANISH SEXOLOGY PROFESSOR Christian Graugaard of Aalborg University has made comments to a Danish TV programme that he believes that students aged 13 and above should be able to view and discuss pornographic images and literature as part of sex education classes. Specifically, he is advocating this step to help students be more critical about what they watch online, and how they interptet what they are seeing.

The professor has hit on one of the biggest issues emerging on the internet today: the exposure of young people (children and teenagers) to online pornography, and the implications for society where a source of completely unregulated education about one of our most basic human instincts is available for anyone to encounter or actively seek.

Young people will see online pornography – so should we help them to interpret it?

Whereas an older teenager or adult can make a mature value judgement about pornography that they see online, it is certain that young teenagers and children would not have that same level of insight.

And so the question is valid: do we educate young people about online porn in our schools; do we leave that to parents to make their own value judgement and speak with their own children; or do we continue with the current sex education modules as they are now?

But what is online pornography, is it a big deal worth fretting about at all, and is it blown out of all proportion as an issue for young people?

A recent survey (Net Children Go Mobile) of young people aged 9 to 16 found that 21% of 500 children surveyed had encountered sexual images in the last year. The numbers of older teenagers encountering this material is much higher than those of a younger age. Internet users in Ireland do like searching for porn, and Google trends analysis shows that Dublin is one of the top five cities in the world from where the term ‘teen web cam’ originates, and Ireland per aggregate of all searchs seeks the term ‘young teen porn’ more that the UK, US, and Italy plus France combined.

But what is online porn?

The expanding reach of hardcore porn

Traditionally the porn industry made films, produced them to tape and later DVD, and in the early days of the web before broadband and faster speeds, sold that material to adults through a credit card transaction.

With the advent of faster connection speeds, streaming technologies and digital cameras capable of taking both still and video content, the online porn space changed dramatically and the traditional porn industry was virtually usurped by a massive wave of content made and/or uploaded by ordinary users (commonly referred to as UGC – user generated content). Various interests, seeing the opportunity that was emerging, built or reworked existing web sites to harness the flow of material.

These sites are not interested in selling porn through credit cards and instead rely on advertising where it follows that driving user traffic to view interesting content is a core business element. Ensuring that the user is an adult through a financial transaction is gone, and anyone at all can view the material on the sites, including young people. The sites advocate that users be over 18 years of age but, in the absence of a workable age verification system, there is little to ensure that any person entering is over the required age.

The ‘traditional’ porn industry has devolved into a wild-west scenario

The result is a transformation of online porn from material produced by an industry subject to regulation to a wild-west scenario that has become a law enforcement and industry regulation nightmare.

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Adult porn includes sexual content that can often contain levels of violence or possibly humiliation to spice up the scenes. However those scenes are generally created through agreement and contract with those involved in traditional porn. I use the word ‘generally’ very reservedly.

UGC is very different and its motivational aspects can range from porn created freely and enthusiastically by persons willingly to others under duress, and can include material created completely without the knowledge of a participant, or revenge porn. Two other forms that are gaining rapidly in popularity are in the non-nude categories: images of children that are not nude but whom are often dressed in very sexual attire with matching poses, and images of young people taken from their social media pages and placed on porn sites where they are commented upon by users.

Teenagers are seeking other teenagers in online porn and UGC is an ideal source.

Ignoring the subject is simply not an option

With that material online and being accessed by young people, it is imperitive in my view that online porn is addressed as part of sex education in schools. A parent wanting to address these issues may not have the necessary current information to do so effectively, and so a coordinated approach between state agencies seems a better option.

Actually showing online porn in class is not necessary to get a message across, but not addressing the subject at all is equally unrealistic in our digitally connected world.

Pat McKenna is the director of Childwatch Ireland, which runs workshops and consultancy programmes on child protection issues online.

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Pat McKenna

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