Generation X-rated owns the net

Never has it been so easy for young children to watch violent pornography. Can politicians who grew up in the analogue age do anything about it? – Published on New Statesman, by Rafael Behr, March 21, 2013.

Most British children growing up in the age of the internet will never go hungry for information. They may hear older generations talk about a time before search engines and social networks, but imagining what that was like will be as hard for them as it is for their parents to picture life before electricity … //

… Girls are feeling the effects of “pornification” – the colonisation of mainstream music videos, adverts and games by the poses and attitudes of hardcore material. Researchers say young women blame the normalisation of a porn aesthetic for increases in harassment and abuse. A 2010 poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that a third of girls had encountered unwanted sexual touching at school. A 2009 NSPCC study found that a quarter of girls aged 13-17 had suffered sexual violence from a boyfriend.

Anti-porn groups worry about a feedback loop: we become desensitised to the quasipornographic representations of women’s bodies in public space and so porn consumers chase greater extremes in the unregulated realm online. “The more pornography infiltrates our everyday lives, whether through music videos, page three or sexist adverts, the more hardcore and violent the industry has become to differentiate itself,” says Sophie Bennett, of the activist organisation OBJECT.

It isn’t just girls who suffer. ChildLine reported that the year-on-year increase in calls from boys disturbed by pornography they had seen online was 70 per cent in 2012. Of those calls, 59 per cent came from children under the age of 15. Young men, Perry says, are growing up with a toxic understanding of their role. “If you’re a 15- or 16-year-old boy now, what do you think a woman wants in bed? What do you think sex even looks like?”

Last year, Perry chaired a cross-party parliamentary review of online child protection. It was not the first such investigation. In 2011 Reg Bailey, the chief executive of Mothers’ Union, a Christian charity, conducted an inquiry into “the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood” for the Department for Education. In 2008, the celebrity psychologist Dr Tanya Byron reviewed the risks posed to children by the internet and video games for the Lab our government. The aggregate conclusion from all these reports is that: first, childhood is under siege from technology and commerce, which devour innocence; and second, change is inevitable but that doesn’t mean governments are powerless to intervene … //

… A dangerous precedent is set when society accepts the banning at source of whole categories of material. “There’s a temptation to think that, because we can do it with technology, we should, in a way that we wouldn’t even think about discussing if it meant destroying books,” says Reidy. “It has to be called censorship in the end, as you are effecting a limit on what people can read or watch.”

Child protection campaigners are unimpressed by that argument. They worry that the balance of power online is on the side of pornographers and predators and that we need high walls around bits of the network to mark out safe spaces for children. “There is no ideological conflict with civil liberties, freedom of speech or any other freedoms,” says Claire Lilley, a policy adviser covering technology at the NSPCC. “This is not an issue of censorship, it’s about choice. Effective filtering provides freedom of choice.”

The ISPs hate the “opt-in” idea. They see themselves primarily as pipeline companies, selling access to infrastructure down which others transmit content. They don’t want any change in the law that implies open-ended responsibility for what is travelling down those pipes. Yet the industry also recognises growing political pressure to act against the profusion of porn and a commercial opportunity to appeal to anxious parents with products that promise to sanitise the web.

“The argument tends to get polarised between people who say ‘all porn is evil’ and those who demand a completely free internet as part of the common good,” says Dido Harding, the chief executive of the telecoms group TalkTalk. “The truth is going to be somewhere in between.”

In March last year, TalkTalk became the first broadband provider to prompt customers with “an unavoidable” choice to block adult content – a simple yes or no question, posed when the service is first activated. About a third say yes, which, the company surmises, equals roughly the proportion of households with dependent children.

Harding sees fellow ISPs as having a moral obligation to provide parents with the tools to protect children, but she warns that filters are no substitute for engaged parenting. “It’s not good enough to say technology can keep children safe. When an 11-year-old goes out of the front door you ask where she is going. Online, it’s too easy not to ask the same question.”

According to research by the London School of Economics, 52 per cent of 11-to-16- year-olds have internet access in their own bedroom. A survey carried out for the Bailey review found that, among children who went online regularly, 56 per cent of 12-to-15-yearolds were unsupervised, as were 29 per cent of eight-to-11-year-olds and 12 per cent of five-to-seven-year-olds. Yet children watching porn passively is quickly becoming the least of parents’ worries. Teenagers now share explicit images taken on their mobile phones in private or are bullied into providing them. This material can then be maliciously passed around the playground or posted on the web.

There is no law that can control the kind of sadistic impulse behind much of what appears online, but that doesn’t mean governments can surrender. Having lost the battle for “optin” filters, Perry is determined to construct a regulatory regime that will be, in her words, “as near as damn it”. It is a position that earns her intense and profane abuse online. The community of digital free speech crusaders seems to overlap with a fraternity of vituperative, woman-hating sociopaths, which rather supports the view that web culture is infected with a virus of violent misogyny.

A Labour government would show no greater deference to pornographic freedoms. Helen Goodman, the shadow minister for media reform, has conducted her own focus groups of schoolgirls and come away persuaded that the ubiquity of internet porn and the “wallpaper effect” of heavily sexualised imagery in public is corroding the confidence of young women and making them vulnerable. “The problem is that the normal and the acceptable has only shifted in one direction,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is replicate online the standards we have in the real world. We have a public space that, with a few exceptions, is acceptable for children and that can’t be said about the internet. It is not reasonable to put all of the responsibility for dealing with that on to parents all of the time.”

Parents cannot police everything that their children do online. Teenagers will always have more energy to put into concealment and subterfuge than adults can muster to investigate them. That imbalance becomes even more pronounced where one generation has a native understanding of the digital world, having grown up there, while their elders struggle with the disorientations and language barriers of digital immigration.

Many children of migrants see misty-eyed parental nostalgia for the old country as disqualification from commenting on the habits and lifestyles of the new one. The same must surely be true of those who were born in the internet age, hearing the moralising angst of those who were thrust into it as adults. Those of us who cannot even begin to imagine why anyone would post pictures of debauched private antics in a public space struggle to transmit that bafflement to those who do it without a second thought – as if the event cannot be said to have happened fully if it hasn’t been recorded on Facebook.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t tech-savvy parents. There are thousands of adults who squander hours online as dissolutely as their children. But they have the memory of growing up analogue. They know about letterwriting and keeping 10p for a payphone – the psychological relics of a childhood on a lost continent. For the children of the New World there is no obvious distinction between analogue and digital being. The space online is part of the fabric of their lives, which makes it impossible to imagine how a porn-busting algorithm or patch of code could protect them from abuse.

That does not diminish the need for some kind of intervention. The crucial leap is in recognising that the internet is more than a method of communication; it is a place for being. That means the civil libertarians are right when they say we must be careful how much control we hand over to private corporations and state managers. It also means that politicians are right to see it as an area where governments can reasonably claim jurisdiction. We can teach our children to beware predators and to stand up to bullies online. Just as urgently, we need to teach them to engage in the analogue politics around the internet. The best people to design regulations in a community are probably the ones who live there full-time.
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Links:

many videos: Students and Teachers Defend Public Education, on TRNN, March 27, 2013;

Domestic demand in selected euro and non-Euro countries, time series, on RWER Blog, by merijnknibbe, March 27, 2013 (with chart).

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