A generation of children are developing permissive attitudes to sex and viewing women as objects after being raised on a “diet of pornography”, a major [British] study has found.
For the first time, the Children’s Commissioner for England has found a clear link between exposure to extreme images at a young age and a rise in “risky behaviours”.
It emerged that children who regularly viewed pornography were more likely to have underage sex, develop “casual and hedonistic” attitudes, experiment with drink and drugs and indulge in sexting – when compromising pictures are taken and passed on using camera phones.
Boys were much more likely to be exposed to porn than girls, it was revealed, resulting in “beliefs that women are sex objects”.
The study – based on a large-scale review of international evidence – also found some evidence of a relationship between explicit images and a rise in sexual aggression and harassment of the opposite sex.
Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, warned that “violent and sadistic imagery” was readily available among “very young children” because of easy access to the internet on home computers, tablets and mobile phones.
It was claimed that many children aged just 10 upwards accidentally accessed “violent and sadistic imagery” while undertaking legitimate research.
“For years we have applied age restrictions to films at the cinema but now we are permitting access to far more troubling imagery via the internet,” she said.
“We do not fully understand the implications of this. It is a risky experiment to allow a generation of young people to be raised on a diet of pornography.”
The report called for the introduction of compulsory sex and relationships education in primary and secondary schools, including modules on the dangers of pornography.
It follows similar calls in recent weeks by the National Association of Head Teachers and Ofsted, which claimed that too many existing lessons were of poor quality.
Speaking at the launch of the report in central London, Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, also called on parents to avoid taking a “zero tolerance” attitude towards pornography, saying that the introduction of hard-line rules prevented children raising legitimate questions when they do access sexual images.
She added: “Some parents and carers simply will not take responsibility for discussing healthy relationships and sexual health with their children… Education is the only universal lever we have to ensure all children are safeguarded against the possible impact of pornography.”
The study – carried out by academics from the universities of Middlesex, Bedfordshire, Canterbury Christchurch and Kent – was based on an in-depth analysis of 276 pieces of international research assessing the link between children and pornography.
One UK study found that 80 per cent of young people believed watching porn “affected the way they had sex”.
It quoted other studies that found a relationship between explicit materials and “higher acceptance and engagement in sexually permissive behaviours” and “attitudes to sex that are casual and hedonistic rather than affectionate”.
It also found a link to under-age sex and the likelihood of smoking, consuming alcohol and taking drugs.
One Swedish study found a quarter of young people who “consumed pornography” had at least one sexually-transmitted infection, while a Dutch paper said: “Exposure to sexually explicit online films was significantly related to the belief that women are sex objects”.
The report also found a link between porn and “sexting”, when children take pictures of themselves and friends in explicit poses and pass them on via camera phones and social media.
This has been “argued to pose risks because the material can be used for bullying, maltreatment and exploitation”, the study said.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Sex and relationship education is compulsory in maintained secondary schools – it is up to primary schools whether they teach SRE.
“We are strengthening the curriculum so that, from the age of five, children will be taught how to stay safe online. Schools can already teach children about the dangers of pornography provided all lessons are age-appropriate and follow the correct guidance.
“The UK Council for Child Internet Safety is already working with internet service providers to make it easier for parents to protect their children from harmful material online.”
By Graeme Paton, Education Editor, 24 May 2013