Many children in the UK are seeing explicit sexual images using internet or mobile devices and commercial pornography distributors could do more to limit such exposure, says a new report, led by Dr Victoria Nash of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and commissioned by the Government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 

The report by a panel of experts lays out the scale of the problem and possible measures to limit and mitigate risks. Published alongside a new government consultation setting out possible measures to reduce such exposure, the panel's report sets out the many ways in which children can encounter such material online. It also points out that there is an obvious mismatch between the regulation currently governing distribution of pornography in the offline context and its equivalent for online material.

To date, most interventions in the UK aimed at stopping minors accessing potentially harmful content have been voluntary. However, the report notes that there are obvious gaps where government might intervene, such as in bringing the responsibilities of commercial online pornographers into line with those in the offline world. The government consultation published today builds on this recommendation and further accepts the report proposal that age verification tools should be more widely employed.

The report provides further background information for the consultation. It reviews available UK and international data, but notes that it is difficult to know the real numbers for children who are accessing porn given the ethical and practical challenges of studying children's experiences on this issue. Historically, the most common means for under-18s to access explicit sexual content were via TV, films, magazines and books which may now be viewed digitally as well as via traditional routes. Common online routes include video and photo-sharing sites or pop-up ads and social media sites.

Filters are an important tool to help parents limit children’s exposure to pornography online but given the variety of ways in which this material can be accessed it’s really crucial we look at other measures such as education and age verification.

Dr Victoria Nash, Oxford Internet Institute

It cites studies that found evidence of children sharing sexual images via mobile phones or the internet. The images they share may be found or 'self generated' with 'sexting' studies showing that children appear to create their own images although why they share them, is a matter of some dispute. The authors suggest social and educational interventions are needed, and point out that technical limits will be more effective when young people have come across pornography accidentally rather than when they deliberately seek it out.

The various routes of access to pornography all provide their own challenges. One UK study in the report identifies pop-up adverts as the most common source of sexual images among the 13-14 year age group. The report says one approach could be a greater use of ad-blocking tools in households, but this is problematic for content producers who rely on advertising revenue. Apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat, both used by large numbers of children, especially those in their early teens, are also difficult to regulate. Such apps allow children to discuss anything, and share photos or videos without leaving a digital trail but the minimum age requirements are not well-enforced. The report notes that this direct messaging may be a way that children, particularly older groups, share sexual images, adding that ephemeral apps may even encourage such behaviour. The mass of real time content downloaded onto popular entertainment sources such as YouTube is also highlighted as an area of concern, due to the sheer amount of new content uploaded every minute which is 'virtually impossible to moderate', according to the report.

It also discusses whether schools should have a bigger role in educating children about pornography, asking whether the topic should be included in the curriculum in order to build a child’s resilience, and make a clear distinction between real-life relationships and the 'fiction' of porn. It is also vital to take into account the wider sexualisation of popular culture whereby children encounter explicit sexual images in films, television, music videos and games.

Study lead author Dr Nash commented: 'It is important to remember that there is no magic bullet here so multiple interventions are needed. The viewing of sexually explicit imagery is not just an "online" problem as such imagery is rife within the wider popular culture. Filters are an important tool to help parents limit children’s exposure to pornography online but given the variety of ways in which this material can be accessed it’s really crucial we look at other measures such as education and age verification.'

The authors are Dr Victoria Nash (Oxford Internet Institute); Professor Joanna R. Adler (Middlesex University); Dr Miranda A. H. Horvath (Middlesex University); Professor Sonia Livingstone (LSE and EU Kids Online); Dr Cicely Marston (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine); Dr Gareth Owen (University of Portsmouth); and Dr Joss Wright (Oxford Internet Institute).

The report, Identifying the Routes by which Children View Pornography Online: Implications for Future Policy-makers Seeking to Limit Viewing, was commissioned by the DCMS.