Published on
08 November 2021

Barnardo’s is urging the Culture Secretary Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP to protect children from online pornography as the charity says it can normalise abusive sexual behaviour and have a corrosive effect on what children view as healthy relationships. 

The UK’s leading children’s charity discovered that more than a quarter (26%) of its frontline workers who responded to a recent survey had supported vulnerable children who had accessed pornography.

And respondents working directly with children have said that accessing pornography has a hugely damaging impact on children. It has a corrosive effect on what children view as healthy and expected within relationships, with more abusive sexual behaviour and physical contact being normalised, they say.

When asked about the impacts of viewing pornographic material when under the legal age of 18, nearly a third (32%) of workers said it had led to the children they support developing unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships while 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, while 12% said it normalised abusive or exploitative behaviour.

Examples of the impact on children supported by Barnardo’s who viewed harmful pornography include: 

  • A girl who sold photos of herself and met up with strangers.
  • Another mimicked the behaviour they viewed online and was convicted of a sexual offence.

Barnardo’s frontline workers said 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 being 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.

The workers said some children do not recognise that their own sexual behaviour can be unhealthy.

A 2018 study* found that when children viewed pornography, 70% frequently saw men portrayed as dominant (compared to 17% frequently seeing women as dominant) and 35% frequently saw ‘consensual’ violence towards women (compared to 9% frequently seeing this towards men).

Culture Secretary Ms Dorries will now oversee regulating big tech through the Online Safety Bill, but Barnardo's believes the Bill in its current form will not protect children from accessing harmful pornography.

Barnardo’s has written to Ms Dorries arguing that the Bill has the potential to be transformative in how children and young people are protected from harm online, provided the Government: 

1) includes all pornography sites in the scope of the Bill; as well as ensuring the regulator has responsibilities to monitor these sites 

2) avoids a two-tier categorisation of safety requirements on sites and ensures all sites which provide pornographic content are required to take action to restrict children from accessing them and remove harmful content.

The 2017 Online Safety Strategy Green Paper and the Digital Economy Act 2017 required all commercial pornography sites to have rigorous age verification processes in place. However, these provisions were never enacted and are being repealed.

The draft Online Safety Bill will require only ‘user-to-user’ sites like TikTok and ‘search’ services like Google to implement age verification, meaning the independent regulator will be unable to monitor and enforce rules against legal pornography websites.

In the Bill, the government categorises online services into two sections. Category One services, which include larger and more-mainstream providers, would be legally required to take action when they see harmful content on their services. However, Category Two services will be exempt from some of the more stringent sanctions.

It is unclear which sites will fall into each category and Barnardo’s wants more clarity from Government on this. The Government envisages that most services and sites will fall into Category Two. Having two categories could lead to a two-tier system that means children will still be less protected and potentially able to access harmful content through these smaller sites.

Barnardo’s Vice-President Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE said:

“Over the last decade or so there has been a real explosion in the availability of online pornography and the mainstreaming of violent sex. Although much of this pornography is legal, exposure to this material can be extremely harmful to children. The Government must ensure that age verification applies to all content that is harmful to children and that pornography sites are properly regulated. Children should not grow up seeing these images because it will affect them into adulthood and as I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime.”

 Barnardo’s co-CEO (interim) Lynn Perry MBE, said:  

“Viewing harmful pornography has a negative impact on children and can normalise abusive behaviour and cause them to develop unrealistic or harmful expectations of sex and relationships.

“Pornography sites must be included in the scope of the Online Safety Bill. Our frontline workers are supporting children who have viewed pornography, which has led them to engage in inappropriate sexualised behaviour and is affecting their mental health.

“Barnardo’s is calling on the new Culture Secretary to put the safety of children and young people first. The new law must require that all commercial pornography sites take steps to ensure that children cannot easily access pornographic content, that sites and apps are designed with children’s safety in mind, and that they prioritise removing harmful content.”

*PHSE Association – What is the Impact of Pornography on Young People? 2020.