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Unrealistic sexpectations: online porn and young people

Catch22 calls on the Government to introduce greater protections for children and young people in the Online Safety Bill by including adult pornography sites in this new legislation.

16 December 2021

Catch22, along with 19 other signatories, has this week submitted an open letter to Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, raising concerns about the impact of exposure to pornography on children.

Just yesterday, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish’s interview with TV show host Howard Stern was widely covered in the media. In the interview, she discusses her exposure to ‘violent’ and ‘abusive’ pornography at a young age and the impact it had on her and her peers’ understanding of healthy sexual relationships. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the interview is that she was exposed to this content from the age of 11 – but Catch22’s young people services know this is all too common.

Today, the Children’s Commissioner has published guidance for parents on talking to their children about online sexual harassment. In it, they cite research that over half of 11–13 year‑olds have seen pornography. Many come across for the first time unintentionally, with 62% of 11–13 year‑olds saying that their viewing of porn was mostly or completely unintentional. They highlight that many parents are unaware this is happening.

Young people involved in producing this week’s guidance raised concerns around degradation and violence towards women, how consent is portrayed, and unattainable body standards.

Children’s brains have great plasticity; meaning knowledge and experiences gained at a young age can have a significant long-term impact. Watching violent sexual content as a child can affect real‑life behaviours and attitudes around gender roles, sex and consent. Our child exploitation services regularly receive referrals for children who have come to believe that abusive sexual behaviours are normal and the sharing of explicit images and videos is expected.

Whilst children and parents need and deserve guidance and support, there is an urgent need to tackle the root cause of the problem: access to online porn sites themselves. Catch22 wants to see the Government’s new duty of care to children laws expanded to include adult sex sites, making them legally liable for protecting children from harm online. Catch22 wants to see compulsory age verification to prevent children from stumbling across pornographic material, and from our research with young people, we know they want to see these protections too.

The Government has a unique opportunity with the Online Safety Bill to introduce greater protections for our children and young people, and we would urge them to include accountability for adult pornography sites in this new legislation.


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