A former adviser to David Cameron says he is so concerned about children accessing internet pornography that he wants under 16-year-olds to be banned from having smart phones and tablet computers. Whilst I agree that access to pornography is alarmingly easy (I’m told) I am not entirely convinced that banning the gadgets used to watch it on is an appropriate response.
Let’s leave aside the logistical inanity of the adviser’s idea; actually, let’s explore it for a bit because it will probably be a good laugh. So step one, presumably, would be to initiate the ban. Starting…now, no one will be able to have a smart phone or tablet if they are under 16. This will either result in all summer born children achieving a higher level of moral decency than their older peers, or, further stunt their naturally slow moving progress towards achieving age related expectations because all they can think about is when they will be able to join their older, and more perverted peers, in a bout of tablet onanism. But at least, the ministers will say, actual hits on pornographic websites will be down, even if fantasised hits are way, way up.
Step two will be a mass-amnesty of all mobile devices belonging to children who managed to get one before the ban. Now, what happens to these devices? Do they get sold on with the children receiving a cash lump sum as a form of compensation? Or will this money go into a special bank and accrue enough interest so that, when they finally come of age, the amount of money will be enough to buy a new device of equivalent power and specification? Or, will all the collected devices be stored away until their owners are 16 whereupon they will be reunited with their little black mirrors? Imagine that, finally being reunited with your smartphone after two years, only to have to endure 24 months’ worth of app updates!
I’m sure both of these steps could happen, allowing Cameron’s friend to sleep at night, but in reality these measures would be worthless. Just like prohibition, it would simply serve to take away the means but not the motive. Maybe, as in during prohibition, it would become an ironic failure and force the habit underground. It certainly would not do, what I imagine Cameron’s troubled imaginer intended, and stop pornography from influencing and shaping children’s attitudes towards sex and relationships. The reason why it would not do this is because it is a void-centric solution that does not place better education and information at the root of the problem.
I can assure you, dear reader, that I have not done any research to back up my reasoning here, but I am willing to believe that the content of hardcore pornography is damaging to children. Not only is it likely to be misogynistic it is also likely to be unrealistic. Unfortunately, however, it is very likely to be highly impressionable – explicit images often are – and this is where our concerns should lie. I don’t want to speak for everyone here but I’m guessing that none of us want short clips of graphic sex to be the biggest influencer on children’s relationships. We don’t want boys and girls to think that pornographic performances are in any way idealised models of consensual sex just as much as we don’t want children thinking that the contents of a pornographic website is a blueprint for expected sexual behaviour.
Online pornography is damaging because it focusses on sexual gratification as a basis for relationships. The degree of damage will depend on the specific content and nature of the online clip but, the long-lasting and negative influence of pornography over time, is normalisation. What else are children meant to think when they have millions of similar clips to choose from? You can criticise whole films or TV programmes for presenting sex in a negative or irresponsible way but at least they often provide a contextualised narrative through which you can apply your own thoughts and opinions. Online pornography just presents the viewer with sex: blunt and explicit sex that, when viewed enough times, can only serve to reinforce a notion that ‘this is real’, and that is damaging. This should not be considered to be the same argument as not allowing children to play violent computer games or watch an 18 rated movie, because most people don’t want to commit violent crime. Most people do want to have sex; so the potential harm of freely available and explicit sexual content without any moral or ethical backbone is more damaging for more people.
To really stop Cameron’s chum from worrying, we should educate children properly about sex, relationships and porn. Yes, there should be porn lessons. Under 16s should be taught about porn*. They should have access to documentaries about the porn industry; they should read about the lives of ex-porn stars and the lessons they learned; they should be told, by sexually active people with whom they can identify (basically not teachers), that porn is not real. Boys should read case-studies of the men that ended up in jail because they thought acting like a porn star, with a girl they couldn’t be bothered to listen to, was acceptable, whilst girls should hear the tales of the women who stood up to those types of men and came out on top.
Relationships and sex education should include the good, the bad and the ugly, because only then will children grow up able to make informed choices, not just about the online content they access, but about the relationships they build with other human beings. If we get the education right then we don’t have to worry about children using their phones and we certainly don’t have to adopt any other idea that may seem at first to be big and bold, but turns out to be rather limp.
*I’m primary based and, as I said, I did no research for this, so apologies if secondary schools and colleges already do this. And I’m not suggesting that primary schools should use porn to teach RSE. I just read a news article and started