Published on
11 December 2021

A coalition of children’s charities and organisations working to keep children safe online, led by Barnardo’s, has signed an open letter to the Culture Secretary Rt Hon Nadine Dorries urging her to protect children from online pornography. 

The organisations are urging the Government to make it a legal requirement within the Online Safety Bill that commercial pornography websites protect children from their content using age verification methods.  

There are already proposals in the draft Bill to ensure social media and user-to-user generated sites like TikTok keep children safe  and protected from viewing harmful material - but the Bill needs to go further. Children do not access pornography through social media sites alone. 

Viewing pornography – often extreme and violent – can distort children’s understanding of healthy relationships and can normalise abusive sexual behaviour and have a corrosive effect on what children view as healthy relationships. 

For the Online Safety Bill to be effective in protecting children, Barnardo’s and other organisations believe it must include the following measures: 

  • Mandatory age verification measures for all sites containing pornographic material. 
  • Harmful and illegal content such as pornography with child abuse or violence against women and girls must not be allowed to be uploaded onto sites. Taking it down after days or weeks after countless viewings is just not acceptable.  
  • Extending Ofcom’s powers to include regulation of commercial pornography sites which do not implement safety by design and age assurance. 
  • An end to the two-tier categorisation of sites which cannot be future-proofed as new sites can gain significant child viewers in a short time. 

The signatories to the letter are: 

  • John Carr – Chair of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition for Internet Safety  
  • NSPCC  
  • The Children’s Society  
  • Childnet International  
  • Internet Matters   
  • Internet Watch Foundation   
  • 5Rights  
  • Catch22  
  • Kidscape  
  • End Violence Against Women Coalition  
  • Association of School and College Leaders  
  • Girlguiding  
  • The Lucy Faithfull Foundation  
  • The Marie Collins Foundation  
  • Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor in Criminology, Centre of Abuse and Trauma Studies, Middlesex University 
  • PSHE Association   
  • SafeLives
  • ECPAT UK. 

 The coalition hopes these proposals will be endorsed by the Joint Scrutiny Committee which is making its recommendations to the Government on Friday 10 December, and that the text of the Bill will be amended. 

Since the Government’s decision not to introduce age verification with the implementation of the Digital Economy Act around four years ago, thousands of children have been able to easily access harmful and often extreme pornography, and this will continue unless the Online Safety Bill is amended. 

Barnardo’s frontline workers say that children are participating in acts they have seen in pornographic videos, despite feeling uncomfortable or scared. They said some children see these acts as an expected part of a relationship and believe if they feel otherwise then there must be something wrong with them, rather than identifying it as abusive. Frontline workers say some children do not recognise that their own sexual behaviour can be unhealthy.   

  • More than a quarter (26%) of Barnardo’s frontline workers who responded to a recent survey had supported vulnerable children who had accessed pornography.     
  • Nearly a third (32%) of workers said it had led to the children they support developing unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships.   
  • 28% said it led to children displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.  
  • Nearly a quarter (22%) said underage viewing of pornography negatively affected mental health and wellbeing.  
  • 12% said it normalised abusive or exploitative behaviour. 

Barnardo’s Interim Co-CEO Lynn Perry said:   

Viewing pornography is harmful to children and can normalise abusive behaviour. 

While not a silver bullet, age-verification will play a key role in preventing young children from stumbling across online pornography. The Government has a unique opportunity with the Online Safety Bill to introduce a legal requirement on all pornography sites to take measures to protect children.  

“Children cannot afford to wait any longer for these vital protections, and as a society we cannot afford to compromise on their safety or protection.”