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Warning: this article includes references to extreme pornography and links to media reports which some readers may find distressing.

In December 2020, Maria Strauss and Sophia Coles, lawyers in the Farrer & Co Safeguarding Unit, held an In Conversation with…” webinar with Mary Sharpe, Advocate, Co-Founder and Chair of The Reward Foundation, about the harmful effects of the problematic use of pornography on children and young people.

The Reward Foundation is a relationships and sex education charity that conducts and disseminates information about research into the impact of internet pornography on mental and physical health. The charity has been accredited by the Royal College of General Practitioners to train professionals who deal with adolescents in particular, but also with adults who are at risk of developing problematic use of internet pornography. The charity has developed a set of seven (free) lesson plans for schools on sexting and on internet pornography to help pupils make informed choices about the use of porn – please see below for more details.

As a number of delegates commented, the webinar was an eye-opening discussion and it starkly brought home the severity and scale of the problem.

In the Safeguarding Unit, we believe that the issue of children and young people viewing pornography is a relatively unexplored area of safeguarding and that there is an urgent need for organisations who work with young people to understand this area as a safeguarding and child protection issue. A vital step is education in order to be aware of the risks associated with internet pornography and feel confident to have open and informed conversations about pornography and its potential effects on physical, sexual and mental health, as set out in research and highlighted through The Reward Foundation’s work.

This briefing draws together the key points from our discussion with Mary Sharpe, links readers to useful resources and provides an update more generally on the issue since our webinar.

The internet porn industry – vast and unregulated

During the discussion, Mary shared how the internet has dramatically changed the structure of the pornography industry and its commercial interests.

Internet pornography is one of the most sophisticated technology industries in the world. A substantial amount of content is free to view, downloadable and user-generated.

In 2019 alone a staggering 130 years’ worth of porn was uploaded to PornHub (one of the largest providers) in the form of six million separate videos

Mary Sharpe

Income is primarily generated through advertising and relies on as many people as possible coming back to view more content for longer.

PornHub’s annual review for 2019 reported over 42 billion visits to the site that year, which means 115 million visits per day.

Porn sites have a clear interest in targeting and drawing in younger viewers whom they hope will stay watching into their adult lives.

Mary Sharpe

What are children and young people seeing online?

Mary’s research shows that one of the ways in which sites keep people online is to direct users to increasingly more extreme content, to stop them becoming bored and unstimulated. This means the material available to young people is more extreme than ever before, commonly featuring violent, dangerous, misogynistic and sometimes criminal sexual acts. Multiple partner sex, incest, rape and torture porn, featuring choking and other aggressive or degrading acts, are prevalent themes on internet porn sites.

Much of this content would be shocking for adult viewers, never mind children and young people. Despite being classed as “adult entertainment”, 20 to 30 per cent of MindGeek’s users are under 18 according to information received by The Reward Foundation from government advisers who, in the preparation of the Digital Economy Act 2017, consulted with MindGeek (the owners of PornHub).

In addition:

  • Children as young as five and six are stumbling across porn;

  • Sixty per cent of children aged between 11 and 13 have seen pornography unintentionally;

  • YouGov has found that during the Covid-19 lockdown, 47 per cent of children and teens have seen content they would rather avoid, leaving them feeling:

    - uncomfortable (29 per cent);
    - scared (23 per cent); and
    - confused (19 per cent).

See further BBFC figures here [1].

There are no meaningful age restrictions on access to this material (see below on age verification) and, with tablets, smartphones and so much activity moving online as a result of the pandemic, hardcore pornographic material is just a click away for many young people, who may be unprepared and ill-equipped to understand what they are viewing and, as a result, are vulnerable and could suffer adverse impacts.

What is the impact?

We asked Mary what impact this material has on children and young people. The Reward Foundation has collated and collaborated on significant research into this issue and its conclusions show that the damaging effects are wide-ranging and potentially long-term.

Neurological

  • Watching porn can become a compulsive activity or even an addictive disorder for some over time. Like any addiction, porn addiction can have damaging consequences for a user’s life, for example, it can damage family relationships, friendships and employment;

  • It can have an impact on the ability to focus on, and participate in, other activities including work, study and other interests;

Mary advises that most young people are not addicted to pornography in the clinical sense, even if they feel they may have developed problematic use, as addiction is a process that usually takes years to develop.

However, Mary’s work shows that:

  • Young people can become “sexually conditioned [2]” to it, leading to a numbed pleasure response to anything in their lives except the pornography they are viewing;

  • This can push users to develop fetishes and even sexual dysfunctions;

  • As a result of desensitisation, users can escalate to more extreme content in an attempt to maintain the same level of sexual thrill. Porn can help shape sexual tastes over time.

During the seminar, Mary explained the science: pornography use can produce a surge of the neurochemical, dopamine in anticipation of pleasure. If fear or taboo is added as a result of certain types of porn, the brain produces adrenaline that combines with dopamine to give a bigger sexual “high”. This can attract users to frightening or violent themes. Dopamine reacts to novelty. It stops responding as strongly over time to the same material. This can lead to a desire for something edgier. However, if a person tries to stop using porn, some users can start to experience withdrawal symptoms. The desire for more extreme material is linked to the rise in some people viewing child abuse material online, discussed further below. 

Mental and physical health and wellbeing

The negative impact on mental health can come in a plethora of forms, which can last into later life for children and young people.

Common mental health effects include brain fog, irritability, depression and social anxiety. Mary says that pornography tends to present an unattainable body image (porn performers in videos are often surgically enhanced and images further airbrushed). In young viewers in particular, this can create a negative sense of their own body image, leading to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, desire for cosmetic surgery or simply low self-confidence.

It can interfere with healthy sexual activity and make it more difficult for young people to forge and maintain healthy intimate relationships. For example, young people may have distorted expectations about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship and feel pressured to engage in or request certain extreme acts they may have seen when viewing pornography. This can cause physical as well as emotional damage. So called “rough sex” including rough anal sex and BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism) in particular, including sexual strangulation, have become popular genres of porn among “Gen Z” users, and more so amongst girls, according to a survey carried out by The Sunday Times [3] in 2019.

We are seeing more news reports in the press around the risks of these activities with campaigning groups such as “We can’t consent to this [4]” shining a light on the increased reliance on the “rough sex” defence to acts of serious violence against women. The “rough sex” defence will soon be abolished with the enactment of the Domestic Abuse Bill. (See Part 6 of the Bill here) [5]. The Reward Foundation has reported [6] how strangulation during sex (or “air / breath play” as it is termed in the porn industry) is on the rise, risking brain damage, other long-term and debilitating conditions and even death.

Further, there has been a rise in “porn-induced erectile dysfunction” in men under 40 from around two to three per cent in 2002 to over 35 per cent today, mainly in the 20 to 30 age group. This links [7] to extensive research on this area.

Finally, porn is also watched late at night and can interrupt healthy sleeping patterns. This can have knock on effects for health, concentration and academic performance. Research [8] has shown that boys’ academic performance in particular is impacted by increased use of internet porn.

Social impact in later life

Research [9] has linked more frequent exposure to porn with an increase in sexual aggression [10] in relationships and sexual harassment. The adolescent brain is highly malleable and learns quickly. Mirror neurons allow our social brain to learn from imitating what we see. Much pornographic material contains sexual violence to, and coercion of, women and other misogynistic themes, including rape and degrading acts. When boys and young men have been exposed to this material as they grow up, how might this affect their attitude to partners, friends and colleagues in the workplace?

Child abuse

Of the many millions of videos posted on the internet no one can say how many are illegal, for example featuring children or non-consenting adults. What we do know is that the sites are unregulated or minimally regulated, and even when illegal content is identified it is difficult to remove it or prevent it from being re-uploaded. Videos may be uploaded by sex traffickers or as “revenge porn” or by porn addicts seeking to gain membership to paedophile groups and then downloaded and saved on individuals’ personal computers.

For those whose images have been posted online without their knowledge or consent – including young people involved in sexting or victims of “revenge porn” - this can have a devastating effect on their lives.

In the UK, internet and children’s charities the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and NSPCC (through Childline) have teamed up to offer children a secure way of reporting naked or sexual images of themselves posted online. Using age verification, young people can now prove that they are under the age of 18 and in doing so help the IWF (who remove online child sexual abuse material, CSAM) to take down the images. The project is called Report Remove. For more information see link here [11].

Recent developments: The New York Times investigation and The Lucy Faithfull Foundation

This issue has been the subject of a recent New York Times investigation [12]  which told the story of young people finding videos and images of themselves online. The piece also cited that a search for ‘girls under18’ (no space) or ‘14yo’ [on PornHub] leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos.

Following the piece, Visa and Mastercard ceased [13] processing payments on PornHub (with Visa dropping services from all of MindGeek’s sites). This prompted PornHub to announce its ban [14] of “unverified users from uploading or downloading videos” and on 14 December 2020, PornHub removed over six million videos from the site “pending verification and review in the New Year”. It is not clear what the verification requirements will be, and although this is a positive step by the site to try and reduce the likelihood of illegal content being uploaded, the remaining videos – some of which imitate illegal and abusive conduct - remain easily accessible to children and the harms of exposure to this are very real.

Separately, Michael Sheath, principal practitioner at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and a counsellor with 33 years of experience working with men who abuse children, believes that there is a link between the extreme nature of internet porn and deviant or criminal behaviour. Speaking about the men he has worked with to the Guardian [15] newspaper, he said:

“…mainstream pornography sites are changing the thresholds of what is normal and I think it’s dangerous […] If you look at the videos on mainstream porn sites you can see ‘teen’ themes, ‘mom and son’ themes, lots of incestuous porn. It’s pretty deviant stuff. To watch this you have already lowered your threshold of what is acceptable. Porn is an entry drug for a lot of them.”

The wide-ranging and ever novel content on the internet inevitably impacts the behaviour of children as well as adults. People become hooked on novelty and sexual arousal on demand. Mary noted that peer-on-peer sexual abuse [16] has risen hugely across the UK, and many young offenders, as well as the Police, blame porn.[17] Therefore schools and other organisations working with children and young people may find themselves having to handle, and refer on to statutory agencies and specialist services, cases of peer on peer sexual abuse. A report to the police of a child being involved in almost any kind of sexual offence, however minor, can have serious repercussions on that child’s future career prospects when the matter may show up in a DBS report years later.

What can organisations do to help?

Mary described how many adults feel uncomfortable discussing pornography. Equally, young people themselves are unlikely to want to raise it with adults. Yet we know that at some point almost every young person is going to come into either direct or close contact with pornography on the internet, either searching for it directly or stumbling across it, or as a result of being sent it by a friend. Equally, young people may find themselves the victims of revenge porn. Mary says that simply telling children not to look at porn is unlikely to deter (and may even encourage) use. It is better to make children aware of the risks of regular use of internet porn and its potential to get out of control. This will help children become more responsible for their own actions and make more informed choices as they grow up.

Awareness raising is needed about the issue, and parents, teachers, and all those working with children and young people need to be equipped to facilitate frank, informed, honest and age-appropriate conversations with young people about porn and its impact on a regular basis, to promote porn-aware sex education and, importantly, talk about what healthy and respectful intimate relationships look like.

The Reward Foundation hosts a number of educational resources for those wanting to explore the topic and access tools to engage young people on the issue.

In schools and charities

The Reward Foundation has seven core lesson [18] plans which are free and have been developed over the past three years with input from over 20 professionals across education, law and health:

  • Introduction to sexting
  • Sexing, pornography & the adolescent brain
  • Sexting, the law and you
  • Pornography on trial
  • Love, pornography and relationships
  • Pornography and mental health
  • The great porn experiment

Parents

The Reward Foundation has a free guide [19] specifically tailored to parents.

Parents can of course regulate their child’s access to electronic devices on which they might watch pornography. This Internet Matters page [20] gives parents guidance on how to set up parental controls on devices.

Government

In 2017, the UK Government took steps to introduce age verification legislation on pornographic sites, meaning that individuals would need to verify that they were over 18 before getting access. The legislation would have introduced serious penalties for websites that did not offer an age verification mechanism. Last year, just before the general election, the Government decided to withdraw the plan a week before it was due to be implemented. The reason given was that it did not cover pornography found on social media and it would be better if all content were regulated through the Online Harms Bill. The Online Harms Bill has now been delayed until most likely 2024. The Reward Foundation is pushing for robust age verification legislation to be introduced sooner. You can write to your MP [21] to demand action on age verification for pornographic sites.

A recording of the full interview with Mary Sharpe and key resources is available on our dedicated Safeguarding Unit app, Hive Learning – to join this safeguarding community please email Shelly Kainth.

  • [1] BBFC research - “Half of children and teens exposed to harmful online content while in lockdown”, 4 May 2020, view here.

    [2] Your brain on porn: “Sexual conditioning”, view here.

    [3] Porn survey 2019: how internet pornography is changing the way we have sex - India Knight, Sunday 11 August 2019, view here.

    [4] We can’t consent to this: “Our campaign”, view here.

    [5] Parliament: “Domestic Abuse Bill (HL Bill 124)”, view here.

    [6] The Reward Foundation: “'Breath Play' aka Strangulation rising fast” – 11 September 2020, view here.

    [7] Your brain on porn: “Erectile Dysfunction”, view here.

    [8] Sage Journals: “Early Adolescent Boys’ Exposure to Internet Pornography: Relationships to Pubertal Timing, Sensation Seeking, and Academic Performance” - Ine Beyens, Laura Vandenbosch, Steven Eggermont, 17 September 2014, view here.

    [9] Your brain on porn: “Relevant Research and Articles About the Studies”, view here.

    [10] Your brain on porn: “Studies linking porn use to sexual offending, sexual aggression, and sexual coercion”, view here.

    [11] Childline: view here.

    [12] The New York Times: “The Children of Pornhub” - Nicholas Kristof, 4 December 2020, view here.

    [13] Forbes: “Mastercard, Visa Cut Off Pornhub Following Charges Of Illegal Content” - Carlie Porterfield, 13 December 2020, view here.

    [14] Vice: “Pornhub Just Purged All Unverified Content From the Platform” – Samantha Cole, 14 December 2020, view here.

    [15] The Guardian: “How extreme porn has become a gateway drug into child abuse” – Harriet Grant, 15 December 2020, view here.

    [16] For more information and guidance on Peer-on-Peer abuse please see our Peer-on-Peer Abuse Toolkit (a revised version of which will be published later this year).

    [17] See also “Ana Kriégel murder: What it taught us about bullying, porn and boys” Irish Times, 9 November 2019. A research paper entitled "Talking about child sexual abuse would have helped me: Young people who sexually abused reflect on preventing harmful sexual behavior." by McKibben, Humphreys and Hamilton (2017) in Child Abuse & Neglect reports how child sex offenders say that help with the management of pornography would have helped them not offend.

    [18] The Reward Foundation: Guide for Parents, view here.

    [19] The Reward Foundation: “Free Parents’ Guide to Internet Pornography-Pandemic update” – January 13 2021, view here.

    [20] Internet Matters: “Parental Controls”, view here.

    [21] Parliament: “Contact your MP”, view here.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Maria StraussSophia Coles, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, March 2021

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