A generation of children is learning about sex through porn—and we have no way to stop it – Quartz

Sex in the internet age has never been scarier for parents. If they aren’t worrying about what their kids do on Snapchat, they’re fretting about what they’re up to on Tinder.

But those fears pale in comparison to a far graver one: that their child will likely stumble—either intentionally or by accident—into online pornography. The more screens invade the home, from laptops to tablets to mobile phones, the more parents relinquish control over what their children watch. As one sex-education advocate told the New York Times, “Your child is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.”

The question is what to do about it. In countries like the US, where a large proportion of pornography is legal for adults, parents resort to home measures like installing filtering devices on computers, monitoring children’s screen time, or asking children to censor themselves.

The UK is getting more aggressive. A new piece of legislation, likely on the verge of becoming law this year, would usher in sweeping changes to the country’s online privacy laws. By limiting access to X-rated online content based on the age of the user, its aim is to stop children and teenagers seeing sexual material that many argue scrambles their understanding of sex, and deeply damages their emotional development. But security experts are worried: The mechanisms for controlling access could have dangerous unintended consequences, including potential fraud, and government overreach.

Under the legislation, pornography sites would be managed by a censor—the British Board of Film Classification—which would decide what material should be limited to internet users aged 18 and older. (There are currently no UK laws to restrict minors from searching for and watching legal porn, unless parents, schools, or other institutions use software to block those sites.) Age-gating software would protect younger viewers from accessing the material, and internet service providers would be required to block sites that failed to use age gates.

Advocates of internet freedom view the changes as an attack on civil liberties, which would compromise internet users’ anonymity. Age verification would ultimately amount to identity verification, they argue, and once in place could easily be ratcheted up to the point where the government could track all internet use through digital ID cards. Also, the technology for age-gating isn’t yet up to scratch, according to online security experts. Using credit cards or social media accounts to verify age could expose internet users to security breaches, data theft, and blackmail.

Porn as sex education

“Can’t we agree that children shouldn’t be exposed to torture porn, rape born, sadism porn, incest porn?” asks Melinda Tankard Reist, founder of Collective Shout, an Australian group that campaigns against the sexualization of girls and teen access to pornography. Tankard Reist, an expert on trends in teen culture, has tracked the rise of violent and demeaning sexual behavior by boys towards girls in countless interviews with teens.

“The stories they used to tell me at 16 and 17 they’re now telling me at 13 and 14,” she said. “And they’re getting worse.” Tankard Reist argues that young girls are being rushed and coerced into acts like anal sex and blow jobs thanks to widespread pornography that exalts male aggression and female subjugation.

Research suggests she’s onto something. A 2016 report conducted by the University of Middlesex found that by the age of 16, 65% of boys and girls had seen online pornography, and 28% of 11-to-12-year-olds had. In their first encounter, they were as likely to have stumbled on it accidentally as to have searched for it, and their initial reactions were often strongly negative, including shock and confusion, as well as curiosity. But repeat viewing appeared to “desensitize” kids, the researchers found. More than half of the boys surveyed said they thought the sex they saw in porn was realistic.

The cognitive processes many adults go through when they watch porn are complex: Suspension of disbelief, to the extent that the material can be a turn-on, but coupled with knowledge about real world sex, as well as awareness of the conditions under which porn is produced. Children don’t have those tools. Many adults, therefore, can arguably be both porn watchers and well-adjusted individuals with happy sex lives. But kids have yet to experience intimacy; for some, porn is now their first encounter with sex.

 Online porn is “brutalizing boys about what they think they can ask for.”  

Julie Lynn-Evans, a psychologist who has been working with young people for 25 years, told Quartz the number one reason girls are admitted to the emergency room at one UK hospital where she works is no longer self-harm, but anal tearing. Online porn is “brutalizing boys about what they think they can ask for,” she said, and persuading girls to perform porn-like sex acts.

A rise in child-on-child sex attacks also suggests that porn is changing behavior. In the four years to 2016, sexual assaults where both the victim and the perpetrator were under 18 rose almost 80%, to over 9,000 a year in the UK, according to Bernardo’s, a children’s charity. A survey of intimate relationships among teenagers in five European countries found that violent and abusive behavior was “significantly associated” with watching pornography, as well as other factors like family violence.

A 2016 Australian governmental commission on the harmful effects of internet pornography on children highlighted cases of sexualized behavior and assault involving primary-school-aged children. In the course of 700 interviews, one expert said she’d spoken to several boys aged 6 to 8 who watched porn online with their fathers, because “that’s what guys do.”

Still, the damage is hard to quantify. The internet, after all, has forever altered the experience of childhood in other nebulous ways that society ultimately accepts. We may be busier, more anxious, and in some ways more isolated, yet we cherish the constant connections available online.

These changes are arguably bad for young people’s mental health, but many think using government intervention to mitigate them would be heavy-handed. The pornographic material readily available online isn’t, for the most part, illegal. Easy access to such content, and the loss of innocence that comes with it, is the tradeoff we make to ensure open access to all kinds of other useful information.

Is legislation the answer?

Developers tend to embrace the idea that a freer internet makes for a better world, even if it has some unwanted consequences. According to an unofficial maxim called Ranum’s Law: “You can’t solve social problems with software.” Rather than using tech to limit our most vibrant sphere for interaction and learning, the thinking goes, parents and educators should talk about the sexual material confronting children online and how best to respond.

Elena Martellozzo, a criminologist and one of the University of Middlesex researchers who looked into the effects of porn on kids, agrees. In surveys and interviews with more than a thousand children aged 11-16, Martellozzo found that children felt they had received sex education too late, and that talking about sex with adults was still taboo. In her view, earlier and better sex education and frank conversation could help prepare kids who confront porn early and prevent it from shaping their approach to real-world intimacy.

As in the UK, the US, Australia, and much of Europe have outlawed making, viewing, or distributing pornography that features children. But the US has struggled to pass any national legislation that would stop minors from viewing legal porn because of the argument that any form of censorship would harm freedom of speech. So while it’s illegal to sell pornographic magazines to children, there is no such control over websites, leaving it up to individual states, and institutions like libraries and schools, to block access locally.

For its part, Australia is still grappling with the far less sophisticated matter of physical retailers selling hard-core magazines alongside candy, Tankard Reist says. It has yet to confront the problem of online material.

 If the anti-porn law passes in the UK, “there will be a massive revolt by the populace about state intrusion.” 

Advocates of internet freedom say there’s a reason stricter laws don’t exist. If the anti-porn law passes in the UK, “there will be a massive revolt by the populace about state intrusion” into their lives, once people grasp the extent to which age-gating will change their online experience, says Myles Jackman, a lawyer who specializes in obscenity cases, and who also works for the Open Rights Group, an advocacy group for an open internet. The proposed anti-porn measures, he argues, would allow government and businesses to veer toward mass surveillance, censorship, data collection, and web blocking, eroding civil rights.

It’s complicated

Technology experts tend to agree. As a father and tech specialist, Jonathan Care of technology consultancy Gartner is of two minds. Arguing that “our children must be protected” is easy, he says. But as a specialist in secure payments, fraud detection and prevention, and identity proofing, he deeply questions the legislation’s methods.

The technical challenges involved in age verification prompt “a lot of confusion” and “unclear terminology,” Care explains. In short, to know how old someone is, you need to know who they are. There is currently no way to verify someone’s age independent of their other personal information. That’s because age verification typically involves checking official documents like driving licenses, bank card details, or social media accounts—all of which reveal a person’s identity. Such practices, Care argues, will inevitably create huge company databases linking adults’ names to their porn habits.

Providers of these verification services insist such databases would be secured. But Care points to a string of high-profile breaches like the massive compromises recently suffered by Yahoo, and that of Ashley Madison, the extramarital dating site. Payment card companies, meanwhile, are constantly battling security breaches and fraud. In response, the industry has spent years training card holders to be fastidious in sharing their card details and to be wary of malignant sites.

Social media companies have also started to bristle at sharing user data in fear of losing customers. Facebook, the most popular social platform in the UK with over 30 million users, has pushed for more data-sharing transparency of government data requests, because of concerns about its involvement in massive government surveillance programs. Its privacy rules also warn developers against using Facebook data to determine if users should be able to access products.

Kids will be kids

Even if age gates are erected, kids will no doubt find a way around them. A porn site’s age-gating software would need to use IP addresses—the strings of numbers that identify a computer and its location—to detect whether a user was in the UK and therefore subject to the law. But it’s easy to mask location with technologies like Tor, a free browser that anonymizes users by routing traffic through a series of networks. Visitors to porn sites could also circumvent age gates by using a virtual private network, or VPN, such as those used by remote workers to access information in other locations.

These kinds of digital hacks come naturally to children born with the internet. One internet security expert told Quartz that he placed strong parental controls on the internet at his home to protect his 14-year-old son, only to find that the son bypassed them easily by buying a cheap smartphone and tapping into the neighbor’s wifi.

Luckily for the parliamentary bill’s backers, it will likely pass without wading into the details of how age verification will work. Jackman said it was unusual, and worrisome, that a bill of this complexity should pass without nailing down the mechanisms for setting it in motion. Government ministers responsible for the bill declined requests for comment. A spokesman for the UK government said that it could weigh in “once we are a little further along the process.”

But if technology is a moving target, the laws governing it, like the parents they seek to help, may always be a step behind.

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