Briefing: Age Verification for Pornography Websites

July 1, 2022

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A motion was passed by the Guildford Diocesan Synod to address the harm being caused to children and young people by unrestricted access to online pornography. The motion also recommended programmes to increase awareness of the harms of pornography.

Vast quantities of pornography are widely available online for free and with no age check, and 78% of sixth formers said they had seen porn in the last week.

Pornography is being accessed by children and young people and is normalizing sexual violence against, and the submission of, girls and women. This is having an undoubted effect on children.

Pornography is influencing young people's views on sexual relations, and is creating a culture of abuse towards women and girls.

Attempts to have legal protections put in place for pornography sites have been going on for at least a decade. Most recently, 13 children's charities called for age verification.

A new bill, the Online Safety Bill, seeks to regulate social media platforms to prevent children and young people from being exposed to harmful content.

The OSB covered social media sites where users upload pornography, but did not place any restrictions on commercial pornography sites.

The government is trying to restrict access to online pornography by children and young people, but there are still many obstacles to overcome, such as the right to privacy and freedom of speech issues.

Children and young people are gifts from God to families, and they need nurture and guidance in the ways of the Lord.

The Church's vocation to voice its concerns regarding the physical and spiritual degradation of children is of utmost importance, and pornography is an unjust structure that promotes unhealthy messages to children.

The motion asks synod to note the harms associated with access to pornography by children, to call for legislative approaches to age verification, and for better social and educational programmes. This paper summarises those issues in turn.

There is widespread exposure to pornography among children, and the exact scale is debatable. It is likely that existing efforts to limit access to children are proving inadequate, and pornography regularly tops the list of internet content-related concerns of both parents and children.

Children's access to pornography is different from that of previous generations because of the prevalence of these materials on the internet.

Pornography has been linked to misogynistic attitudes, unrealistic attitudes towards sex and body image in teenagers, and the likelihood of young people engaging in more sexualised behaviour. It is also an issue of high concern among both children and parents.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 sought to introduce age blocks on pornography websites, but ran into criticism on multiple fronts. Its key provisions have not been enacted, and one 2019 survey found that a higher proportion of 16-17-year-olds view material on social media and search engines than dedicated pornographic websites. The government introduced the Online Safety Bill, which covers social media and image hosting sites, but has received criticism for being too narrow.

The Church has been actively engaged in parliament on issues related to online safety for several years, and is now supporting a Private Member's Bill that would require Ofcom to produce a code of conduct for age assurance systems.

The Bishop of Oxford and his staff have been engaging with early scrutiny of the Bill and intend to follow its passage through the House of Lords.

The introduction of age restrictions to pornography websites will not completely safeguard children and young people under the age of 18 from being exposed to such content, as many companies that are owned by mindGeek have failed to act in line with the new regulations.

Children may be exposed to pornography through crowded public transport, adults sharing a space with them, or through having access to a shared computer or space. They may also be affected by the expectations and desires of others who have accessed pornography.

There are several approaches to reducing exposure of children to pornography, including age restriction and education about the impact of viewing harmful content, and the criminal penalties for sharing and viewing indecent images of children.

There are resources to help parents talk to their children about pornography, including advice from the NSPCC Youthscape and the Children's Commissioner. Dioceses, deaneries and parishes can also help by providing safe spaces for children to discuss sexual behaviour.