Are 11 years olds viewing porn?

Coming back to the Christian-sponsored ‘parliamentary’ report on children and online pornography that I wrote about yesterday, one of the thing that both intrigued and amused me was the inclusion of Psychologies magazine as a reference. Despite the sciency-sounding title, Psychologies magazine is nothing more than a women’s lifestyle magazine and its ‘psychological’ content is strictly of the ‘pop’ variety, e.g. personality quizzes, etc.

In short, citing Psychologies as credible source of evidence go, its somewhere on a par with citing Viz’s Millie Tant as a serious treatise on feminist politics.

Nevertheless, as its included in the report, as follows…

Smaller scale and more anecdotal studies suggest four out of five children aged 14-16 regularly access online porn at home.

…it would be churlish of me not to take a look, not least as this statement seems to have been included primary as a counterargument to this assertion, which comes from a much more credible source, a report on children and internet safety compiled by academics at the London School of Economics.

A more recent study reviewing internet usage among children across Europe found lower reported figures with 11 per cent of British children of all ages saying they have seen “sexual content” on websites (defined as people naked or people having sex) but one quarter of teenage boys in this study said that they view sexual images online.

To unpick the obvious discrepancy here, its well worth looking first at the evidence from the EU/LSE report and, of course, the first thing to note is that the definition of ‘sexual content’ used in that report covers seeing people naked or people having sex, which quite easily covers everything from Page 3 of the Sun (it doesn’t specify how naked people have to be in the image) through nude scenes and simulated sex scenes on television or in films, right the way up to hardcore porn. That being the case, it should really come as no great surprise to find that although 11% of British childen, in the study, reported having seen ‘sexual content’ online, 24% reported having seen ‘sexual content’ either online or offline, with the main offline sources being film/television and books and magazines.

The age profile data is also rather interesting. For 9-10 year olds, film and television (6%) beats the internet (5%) as a source of ‘sexual content’. At 11-12 years of age, film/television and the internet are running even at 8% and its only when we get to the 13-14 age group that online content (16%) over takes film and television (13%). By the time we get to 15-16 year olds, 25% reported having seen sexual content online during the previous year compared to 21% who’d seen such content on film or on the television, which is interesting as this age group can legally go to see and buy 15-rated films for which the BBFC guidelines read as follows:

Nudity

Nudity may be allowed in a sexual context but without strong detail. There are no constraints on nudity in a non-sexual or educational context.

Sex

Sexual activity may be portrayed without strong detail. There may be strong verbal references to sexual behaviour, but the strongest references are unlikely to be acceptable unless justified by context. Works whose primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation are unlikely to be acceptable.

Repeated use of the word ‘fuck’ is also allowed in 15-rated films but ‘cunt’ is permissible only if justified by the context in which its used.

The EU/LSE report also provides some interesting data on differences between different EU countries:

The greatest exposure to sexual images online is among children in Northern European countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland) and Eastern European countries (the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia), with around one third having seen sexual images either online or offline.

Least exposure is in large, ‘older’ members of the EU – Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland and the UK – possibly countries where technical safety infrastructure is more developed than it is in newer entrant countries.

One cannot let that data pass without noting that children is Scandinavia and the Netherlands, countries with a substantially lower teenage pregnancy rate than the UK, are more likely to have seen sexual content both online and offline – and, of course, these are also countries that provide comprehensive sex education in schools.

Lastly, we also have some data on how children are coming across sexual content online.

Although it is difficult to determine whether children’s exposure to sexual images is deliberate, accidental, or something in between, one follow-up question pursued the ways in which such exposure occurs, to shed some light on the question of intent (see Table 11). It seems that many children who report having seen sexual images online were exposed to them accidentally:

7% of 9-16 year olds overall (46% of children who have seen sexual images online) came across them as images that pop up accidentally.

5% of children overall (or 32% of those who have seen sexual images online) have seen them on a video hosting site such as YouTube.

Slightly fewer have seen sexual images on adult sites, social networking sites or elsewhere on the internet (2-4% in each case).

From which the report goes on to note that…

It may be wondered just what kind of sexual images children have seen. Those aged 11+ were asked what exactly they had seen (see Table 12).

The most common type of sexual image that children report is images or videos of someone who is naked – 11% of all children aged 11-16 (and almost 70% of those who have seen sexual images online).

8% of 11-16 year olds (13% of 15-16 year olds) say they have seen someone having sex on the internet, and 8% have seen someone’s genitals(termed ‘private parts’ in the UK survey and appropriately translated using child-friendly terms in the other languages).

In all, nearly half of those who report seeing sexual images online claim to have seen images or videos of someone’s private parts or of people having sex.

Least common was seeing the kind of content most likely to be extreme, as a form of pornography, namely images or movies showing violent sexual content – just 2% of children. Still, one in six of those who have seen sexual images online have seen portrayals that show violent sexual activity.

That’s interesting. ‘Nearly half’ of those who said they’s seen sexual content online reported having seen full frontal nudity or sex, which means that just over half saw nothing much more that the kind of images that one can readily find on the websites of newspapers like The Sun and the Daily Mail, the same newspapers that are currently campaigning for network-level porn blocking.

By comparison, tracking down the Psychologies magazine leads to a July 2010 article by Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead with the title ‘Are Teenagers Hooked on Porn‘ which deserves to be filed under ‘Questions to which the answer is No’.

From this article and its surrounding content we find that, unsurprisingly, the magazine has its own ‘doin-it-for-the-kids’ anti-porn campaign – ‘Put Porn in its Place’ – and also the source of ‘smaller scale and anecdotal studies’ referred to in Clare Perry’s report:

We’ve had plenty of letters from concerned readers on this very topic, and when we decided to canvass the views of 14 to 16-year-olds at a north London secondary school, the results took us by surprise.

Almost one-third first looked at sexual images online when they were aged 10 or younger.

81 per cent look at online porn while they are at home.

75 per cent say their parents have never discussed online porn with them.

So that’s a ‘study’ (singular) conducted amongst 14-16 year olds at a single North London secondary school (n=???), an age at which boys, in particular, are notoriously prone to exaggeration when it comes to their sexual experiences. In short, its entirely worthless.

As for Aitkenhead’s article, most of it is taken up with a grab bag of anecdotes from a record producer (seriously!) and an assortment of therapists, i.e. completely unrepresentative and a few statistics grabbed from the internet.

The average child sees their first porn by the age of just 11. Between 60 and 90 per cent of under-16s have viewed hardcore online pornography, and the single largest group of internet porn consumers is reported to be children aged 12 to 17. There is nothing new, of course, about pornography. But this is the first generation to grow up seeing rape and sexual violence before even losing their virginity.

You’ll find these statistics widely quoted around the internet with one of the more comprehensive collections residing at ‘Top Ten Reviews’ (strapline: ‘We do the research so your don’t have to’).

However, you may also notice that none of the statistics cited by Top Ten Review is given a clear attribution of source. Instead, right at the bottom of the page, you’ll find this note:

Sources:

Statistics are compiled from the credible sources mentioned below. In reality, statistics are hard to ascertain and may be estimated by local and regional worldwide sources.

ABC, Associated Press, AsiaMedia, AVN, BBC, CATW, U.S. Census, Central Intelligence Agency, China Daily, Chosen.com, Comscore Media Metrix, Crimes Against Children, Eros, Forbes, Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Free Speech Coalition, Google, Harris Interactive, Hitwise, Hoover’s, Japan Inc., Japan Review, Juniper Research, Kagan Research, ICMEC, Jan LaRue, The Miami Herald, MSN, Nielsen/NetRatings, The New York Times, Nordic Institute, PhysOrg.com, PornStudies, Pravda, Sarmatian Review, SEC filings, Secure Computing Corp., SMH, TopTenREVIEWS, Trellian, WICAT, Yahoo!, XBIZ

So what we have is a mixed bag of media organisations, a couple of business intelligence companies and campaign groups and nothing that looks particular academic or scientifically rigorous, which is rather a problem because many of these ‘credible sources’ are also some of the main promulgators of ‘zombis statistics’, statistical claims that are either badly out of date, inaccurate or even entirely made-up but which have become entirely detached from their original source and have, as a result, have acquired a living-death all of their own.

No matter how often you shoot the fucking things down, they keep coming back.

It can take a lot of time and effort to run down the origins of a particular zombie statistic but, luckily, in this case Seth Lubove put in the necessary scut work for Forbes Magazine, way back in November 2005.

When Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) introduced the Internet Safety & Child Protection Act in July, aiming to slap a 25% excise tax on online purchases of porn, she cited a startling statistic: Children in the U.S. now typically get their first exposure to porn at age 11. It got picked up in several press reports. “The average age at which a child first views Internet porn is 11,” pronounced a Denver Post editorial. “The average age a child first views Internet pornography is 11, and those kids don’t look away,” intoned Matt Lauer on General Electric-owned NBC’s Today show.

“The Internet has changed the whole dynamic of porn,” declares Tim Wildmon, president of the fundamentalist American Family Association founded by his father, Donald Wildmon, in Tupelo, Miss. “The average age of the introduction to pornography is now 11 years old.”

However, there’s a problem…

Just one problem: The assertion is untrue, unsupported and likely of dubious origin, none of which has stopped porn’s opponents from using it. Sen. Lincoln lifted the factoid from a report issued in July by Third Way, a new Washington think tank that helps Democrats grab on to red-state issues. A press release accompanying the report, by Third Way staffer Sean Barney, proclaimed, “While it is as difficult as ever for a teenager to walk into a store and buy a pornographic magazine, it is as easy as ‘point-and-click’ for an 11-year-old child to view streaming pornographic video online.”

Okay, so where did these figures come from? As ever, its always best to let ‘follow the money’ be your guide…

Where did Third Way get that notion? From a May 12 story in the New York Times-owned Boston Globe headlined “The Secret Life of Boys,” which cites an outfit called Family Safe Media. The small firm in Provo, Utah, is in the business of scaring parents into buying software to protect their kids from Internet smut. Jared Martin, who owns Family Safe Media, says he got his porn statistics from Internet Filter Review, a Web site that recommends content-blocking software. It is run by tech entrepreneur Jerry Ropelato of Huntsville, Utah, who pens antiporn screeds, such as “Tricks Pornographers Play,” and publishes curious and uncredited stats (for example, “17% of all women struggle with pornography addiction”).

“Most of the statistics there have come from literally hundreds of sources, all reputable,” Ropelato insists. He says he got the age-11 item from The Drug of the New Millennium, a book about the dangers of porn self-published in 2000 by Mark Kastleman, a self-professed former porn addict in Orem, Utah, who counsels other porn fiends. “I don’t remember where I got that from,” Kastleman says breezily. “That is a very common statistic.” And there the trail goes cold.

So the trail leads back from a Democrat think-tank that was in the business of triangulating ‘red-state’ (i.e. Republican) issues, to a newspaper and from there back to a company that sells net-nannies and finally to a tech-review website run from deep in Mormon country by a ‘entrepreneur’ with an obvious agenda and a penchant for extremely dodgy statistics. Finally, the trail leads back to a self-published book by another Utah resident, and self-professed former porn addict, which dates to the Millennium.

So we have a claim here that pre-dates Youtube (2005), Facebook (2004) and even BitTorrent (2001) – oh, and guess who runs ‘Top Ten Reviews’, the site I linked to a little earlier?

Yes, its Jerry Ropelato, of course.

As for Aitkenhead’s other ‘statistics’…

I’ve managed to trace the claim that 12-17 year olds are the largest group of porn consumers back to a newspaper article in ‘The Spokesman Review’, a local title serving Spokane and inland areas of the Pacific North West. The date on the article is… April 4th 1994!

As for the source of this claim, it turns out to have come from the notorius and largely discredited report of the Meese Commsion, which dates right the way back to 1986 – that’s five years before the first ever webpage was published by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN.

When, however, its comes to the claim that 60-90% of under 16s have viewed hardcore porn online, the earliest source I can find for this claim is Aitkenhead’s own article – the claim is based on nothing more than the survey that Psychologies magazine ran at a school in North London.

Contrast that with the view you get from academics who do genuine studies…

…Kimberly Mitchell of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and Michele Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids in Irvine, Calif., say the assertion that “extremely young children” are ogling online porn “may be overstated.” Analyzing the results of a random-sample survey of 1,500 kids ages 10 to 17, they recently found that kids don’t start seeking out Internet porn until age 14, when they’re “age-appropriately curious about sex.” Fewer younger kids had gone looking smut–and mostly the old-fashioned way, finding it in their dad’s magazines lying around home.

All of which is entirely consistent with the data in the EU/LSE report, which also shows the kids don’t start looking for porn until 13-14 years of age, the age at which they naturally began to develop an interest in sex.

So, to sum up, what have we actually learned here, other than the fact that one should alway beware of campaigners bearing bullshit zombie statistics?

Well, if your kids are under 10-11 years of age then then main risks they face would appear to be pop-up advertising, Youtube, your own DVD collection, Page 3 of The Sun and the Daily Mail’s celebrity mailbait sidebar. In terms of online risks, there’s nothing much that a decent ad blocker and Youtube’s parental controls can’t cope with although I’d recommend you add the websites of The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Star to your net-nanny, if you have one, just to reduce the risk of your kids growing up to become assholes.

If your kids are a bit older, however, then what they need isn’t internet censorship but good quality comprehensive sex and relationships education.