Published on
31 March 2022

Major commercial pornography providers are being urged by a coalition of charities led by Barnardo’s to introduce age-verification swiftly to protect children from accessing harmful content on their websites.

Barnardo’s is publishing an open letter, signed by more than a dozen organisations which work to protect children, which also calls on pornography websites to change their content standards to bring them into line with the British Board of Film Classification’s ratings for violent and pornographic content.

Many commercial pornography websites feature depictions of practices that meet the definition of criminal standards of sexual violence, including rape, incest and so-called ‘revenge porn’, which would be illegal to buy in the UK on DVD or Blu-ray. 

Almost 70 per cent of UK adults (69%) agree that this extreme pornography which would be illegal on DVD should also be illegal online according to new YouGov online research published today, commissioned by children’s charity Barnardo’s. This compares to just 10% who disagree.*

In addition, 75% of parents and guardians agreed that extreme pornography should be illegal online compared to 62% of adults who don’t look after children. 

The call to introduce age-verification comes as MPs prepare to debate the new Online Safety Bill which has recently been introduced to Parliament. 

The UK Government has agreed to introduce laws to force all commercial pornography sites to implement age-verification - but it could take up to three years for this legislation to be implemented. This is why Barnardo’s and other organisations want pornography providers to voluntarily introduce age-verification as soon as possible. 

Barnardo’s warns that its frontline services are supporting children who are watching extreme and harmful pornography containing illegal acts, violence and child sexual abuse. They say watching this content has an impact on their mental health, perception of healthy relationships and behaviours, that it leads to a normalisation of damaging sexual activity and also increases the risk of children being exploited and abused off and online. 

Case studies

​​​​​One 10-year-old girl regularly made highly sexualised comments in school along with groans and moans. She told schoolteachers that her favourite thing was ‘prawn’, meaning ‘porn’. Through Barnardo’s the child has been supported to understand and change their behaviours.  

One 13-year-old boy had been a keen sports enthusiast but during lockdown away from school he spent more time online and watching pornography. One day he exposed himself to a much older woman and made sexually suggestive comments to her. He was then subsequently arrested, convicted of a sexual offence and excluded from school. When he was referred to Barnardo’s he disclosed that he had been specifically viewing content which portrayed men exposing themselves in public to women who enjoyed this and then engaged with the men sexually. Having never been aggressive or in trouble before, and his feeling of shame at discovering that women did not like this approach, the Barnardo’s professionals who supported the boy felt that his actions were directly linked to what he had seen portrayed online.  

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Lynn Perry MBE said: 

"Every day children are seeing harmful pornography online and we must act now to protect them. 

"The Government has rightly committed to passing new laws but they could take up to three years to come into force, and in the meantime millions of children could be seeing harmful content millions of times over, with serious consequences for their mental health, their understanding of consent, and their perception of healthy relationships.  

"That’s why as a group of organisations supporting children and young people, we are calling on the owners of leading commercial pornography sites to take action by introducing age-verification measures now, before it becomes a legal requirement."  

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC CEO, said:  

“Viewing pornography can be extremely damaging to children’s perception of healthy relationships, sex and consent and the Government has rightly listened to calls to fix one of the gaps in the Online Safety Bill to protect children from harmful and age-inappropriate content. 

“Now the onus is on commercial pornography companies to get ahead of the curve and agree to introduce age verification on their sites as soon as possible rather than waiting for legislation to come into place which will force them to. 

“This is a real opportunity to show that they are genuinely treating children’s safety as a priority.” 

BBFC Chief Executive David Austin said: 

“The BBFC has long supported the principle that what is unacceptable offline should also be unacceptable online. While the Online Safety Bill will finally require pornography providers to prevent children accessing their services, commencement of the new regime is by the Government’s own estimate still years away. That is why we support this call for pornography providers to act now to protect children by introducing age-verification on a voluntary basis, and to ensure that they are not carrying any illegal or harmful content." 

Signatories to the open letter

Lynn Perry MBE, Chief Executive, Barnardo’s.  

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, The Association of School and College Leaders.  

Carolyn Bunting MBE, CEO, Internet Matters.  

Rosie Caldwell, CEO, Plan International UK.  

John Carr, Secretary, UK Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety.  

Stella Creasy MP.  

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children's Commissioner for England.

Deborah Dennis, Chief Executive, The Lucy Faithfull Foundation.  

Gillian Finch, Manager, CIS'ters.  

Will Gardner, Chief Executive, Childnet.  

Dr Elly Hanson, Clinical Psychologist & Research Director of Fully Human, an initiative of the PSHE Association.  

Emma Hardy, Communications Director, IWF.  

Tim Loughton MP.  

Nick Martlew, Executive Director, 5Rights.   

Vanessa Morse, Chief Executive, CEASE (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation).  

Farah Nazeer, CEO, Women’s Aid Federation of England.  

Lord Russell of Liverpool.  

Lauren Seager-Smith FRSA, CEO, Kidscape.  

Dr Nadia Wager, Acting Director of the None in Three Research Centre for the Global Prevention of Gender-Based Violence, University of Huddersfield.  

Peter Wanless, Chief Executive, NSPCC.  

Kate Wareham, Director of Young People and Families,  Catch 22.   

Tania Woodgate, Chief Executive Officer, Male Survivors Partnership. 

Parents or carers who would like advice on how to keep children safe online can visit https://www.barnardos.org.uk/blog/tips-to-keep-your-child-safe-online 

Extreme pornography is defined in legislation and includes 'explicit and realistic' images of rape and serious violence. This content is illegal to possess in the UK, but is still found on many commercial pornography sites. We also believe that other content which the BBFC refuses to classify for DVD/Blu-ray should not be accepted online. This includes depictions of sexual violence that fall short of the legal definition of extreme pornography, material that promotes an interest in sexually abusive activity, and acts likely to cause serious physical harm.