According the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child article 17, every child has the right to reliable information from the mass media. Television, radio, newspapers and other media should provide information that children can understand. The Convention states that Governments must help protect children from materials that could harm them.

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Children’s Internet Use
What Children See Online
The Harmful Impact of Online Material
What is the best way to protect children?
Is blocking porn at ISP level technically feasible?
Is this censorship?


Children’s internet use

“Digital literacy is increasingly a basic requirement for employability.” Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s Digital Champion

Children use the internet for good reasons; they research school work, chat to friends, play games and download music. They use a plethora of devices to do this from PCs and laptops to games consoles and smartphones.

  •  91% of children live in a household with internet access
  •  43% 12-15 year olds have internet access in their bedrooms
  •  One in three 12-15 year olds believe that information on a website listed by a search engine must be truthful.
  •  Only 39% of households have installed internet controls or filtering software at home. (1)
  •  Only 1 in 3 parents have set up filters on their children’s mobile phones to protect them from web sites aimed at the over 18s.
  •  Just 15% of games consoles have any parental controls applied to them. (2)


40% of the entire UK domestic broadband market is supplied by two companies – sky and Virgin – which are effectively TV and entertainment companies turned broadband providers. (3) Roughly 10% of BT’s consumer broadband base also subscribe to BT

Vision. (4) It is already the case that at least half of the entire domestic broadband market in the UK is likely to be part of a wider home entertainment package which underlines the close connection that now exists between the internet and the everyday realities of family life in Britain.


What children see online

“One of the major historical changes introduced by the Internet may not be how many children get exposed to sexual materials… but how many get exposed involuntarily.”

Dr Kimberly Mitchell (5)

  • 27% boys access pornography every week, 5% view it every day. (6)
  • Almost one in eight children have visited a pornographic website showing violent images. (7)
  • Just 3% of pornographic websites require proof of age before graining access to explicit material whilst two-thirds of such sites do not include any adult content warnings. (8)

Exposure to pornography is not the only risk that children face when using the internet. Parents are also concerned about many other forms of disturbing internet content including cyber-bullying, extreme violence, self-harm, suicide and pro-anorexia sites.


The harmful impact of online material

“Our children are being ever more exposed…. to extreme pornography. I don’t think we can continue to stick our heads in the sand about the potential effect of this – namely that we are going to produce a generation with a terrifying idea of what sex is all about.” Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet

  •  93% of women and 73% of men think that the ease with which pornographic content can be viewed online is damaging to children. (9)
  •  Counsellors working for Relate report that use of internet porn is a cause of tension and conflict for as many as 40% of the clients who seek their help with sexual problems. (10)
  •  Referrals to the Portman Clinic for the problematic use of pornography increased from 9% in 2001-2 to 16% in 2007-8. (11)

For many of today’s children, their first introduction to the adult world of sex and sexuality is pornography; a very poor sex educator. This exposure will inevitably shape their sexual lives and affect future relationships.

Far from being harmless, we are seeing evidence that children’s consumption of pornography is affecting their development: seventeen year old boys describing body hair on girls their age as disgusting, teenage girls reporting pressure to engage in risky and uncomfortable sexual practices and teenagers’ surprisingly tolerant attitude to violence in relationships. (12,13)


What is the best way to protect children?

“The entire history of the internet is a narrative about challenges being confronted and defeated. One week something was not just impossible, it was unimaginable. The next it was commonplace. We have had device based filters almost from day one of the internet becoming a consumer product – getting on for twenty years now. They aren’t working. It’s time to try a new approach. Far too many parents are still telling us they find it too difficult, too confusing to set up the filters and make them work satisfactorily. There are familes for whom no amount of outreach is going to work. Perhaps the children who need help the most are the least likely to get it. A filter might be the only sort of help they get. Charities all work with families where no amount of education would have an impact.” John Carr, Secretary of the UK Council for the Internet Safety

No technical solution, on its own, can be 100% effective in blocking age-inappropriate content or behavioural issues. However there are measures that can and should be taken to minimise risk.

Network filters offer two main advantages when compared to the current use of device-level filters:

  •  The ISP instead of the end user assumes the job of installing and maintaining content filters.
  •  The same level of filtering protects multiple devices.

The Government’s consultation suggests three options:

  • Active Choice in which new customers buying new devices or broadband services are asked whether they would like open access to all content at the point of purchase. It would encourage consumers to engage with the issue but, given that 73% of households already have internet access, (14) is unlikely that this would provide widespread protection across the UK until the end of this decade by which time a further generation of children will have been exposed to degrading and damaging material.
  • Active Choice-plus would see adult content automatically blocked unless users choose to unblock using a simple action such as removing a tick from a box. This is based on the idea that most people are likely to accept the suggested option. However such a system is likely to be too easily bypassed by computer-savvy children.
  • The Opt-in System in which harmful content – not just pornography but other harmful material such as suicide, violent, self harm and pro-anorexia sites – is blocked as a default unless users contact their ISPs and ask for this to be reversed. This block would also apply to public wi-fi connections which would protect children online outside the home.

There may be a risk that providing an opt-in system might create a sense of complacency amongst parents but in practice it is likely to offer far better overall protection for children in the online environment than the current system where only a minority of households install device-level filters.


Is blocking porn at ISP level technically feasible?

“We already have an opt-in approach on mobiles. We’re able to block sites, so it would be possible to do the same on the internet.” Virgin Media (15)

Internet Service Providers already filter content at a whole network level depending on the law or practice in individual countries and in some cases, in response to commercial considerations. British ISPs acted collectively in 1996 to apply whole network filtering to child abuse imagery by creating the Internet Watch Foundation to monitor sites displaying abuse and block access to them.

Filters are also already successfully applied at individual account level in many commercial settings and schools and the technology behind such content filters is well advanced. Last year TalkTalk became the first British ISP to offer such a filter for home broadband with the introduction of HomeSafe which protects all devices connected to a home internet connection with one universal content filter.

There is currently no evidence that an op-in model would add substantial cost or slow down internet speeds. (16)

These filters are analogous to the service offered by almost all large British mobile phone companies (some of whom also supply fixed line internet broadband services) where mobile internet access is subject to a default adult content bar which can only be lifted by proving that the end user is over 18.


Is this censorship?

“This isn’t banning or prohibition, this is opt-in.”Andrea Leadsom MP (17)

These measures do not constitute censorship because over 18s would be able to have access to adult material if they so desired.

We accept regulation in all other areas of the media; TV viewing is restricted by Ofcom guidelines, cinema screens are subject to the British Board of Film Classification ratings, high street hoardings and general print advertising are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority and displays of pornographic magazines are regulated by an industry code. In 2004 the mobile phone industry created a reasonably successful self regulation model that relies on an adult verification check which restricts access to inappropriate internet material.

Preserving important political rights such as free speech are in no way in conflict with an ordinary human desire to protect children from porn.



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(1) Ofcom, March 2010

(2) http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/oct2011/Children_and_parents.pdf (p100)

(3) http://www.ispreviw.co.uk/review/top10.php

(4) http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/broadband/364972/broadband-boosts-bts-bottom-line

(5) K Mitchell et al, The Exposure of Youth ot Unwanted Sexual Material on the Internet: A National survey of Risk, Impact and Prevention. 2003

(6) Sex Education Survey, YouGov 2008

(7) Livingstone, S., Bober, M., Helsper E Internet literacy among children and young people. LSE. 2005

(8) The Witherspoon Institute Report, The Social Costs of Pornography, 2010

(9) YouGov Poll, 2-3rd Feb 2011

(10) The Independent. ‘Sex.com: We are a national addicted to porn’ 28 May 2006

(11) Woods, John. The Impact of internet pornography on sexuality and relationships The Portman Clinic London 2010

(12) Flood, Michael. The Harms of Pornography Exposure Among Children and Young People – Child Abuse Review Vol 18: 384-400 2009

(13) Barter, McCarry, Berridge & Evans. Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships NSPCC/Bristol University 2009.

(14) ONS – Internet Access, August 2010

(15) The Daily Telegraph Internet Pornography Curb by the Government 19 Dec 2010

(16) Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection 2012 p6

(17) Ibid p36