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opinion

Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University. She writes about the science and politics of sex

In a move that has been quiet and steadfast, the U.K. government will be enforcing a block on online adult content beginning next month. Accessing pornographic websites, including free sites like YouPorn and PornHub, will require an individual to verify they are over the age of 18, using a login with their real name and government ID, credit card, or a voucher available at stores.

Many are understandably worried about how their private data will be used, and whether the ban will even accomplish what it purports to do – namely, protect underage children from exposure to X-rated content.

A 2015 study suggesting that one-tenth of children as young as 12 are fearful of becoming “addicted” to porn was the rationale for the block. But many issues have become evident regarding how the study was conducted, including the fact that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children commissioned a “creative market research” group, as opposed to impartial scientists, to carry it out. A backlash ensued when the findings were published, along with an open letter, signed by more than 30 sex educators, academics and journalists, criticizing them.

Indeed, research has been mixed regarding exactly how pornography affects young people’s sexual development, with some studies suggesting it isn’t as harmful as previously thought, and – considering this is a highly controversial issue – many others suggesting it is.

More importantly, children who say they are afraid of becoming “addicted” to porn, especially if they have reached puberty, are likely voicing a normal curiosity about sex, as opposed to something that should be framed as pathological. So-called “porn addiction” is not a recognized medical condition, and there are no empirically valid studies supporting the concept. (As someone who has conducted academic research with adults struggling with their porn use, a more accurate description would be anxiety combined with a lack of coping skills.)

In many cases, children are not receiving comprehensive sex education (such as in Ontario) and porn becomes the only way they are able to learn about sex. In England, students will be taught a more comprehensive curriculum starting September, 2020, the first update to the curriculum in 20 years.

Roughly one in five British children aged 9 to 11 has been exposed to online porn. By the age of 15, this statistic increases to more than half of all children. In most cases, a child will come across pornography unintentionally, by accidentally clicking on a site, viewing a pop-up ad while doing something else, or via social media, junk mail, or someone they know – situations that won’t be affected by the ban.

And what about the 15 per cent of underage kids who report seeking out pornography on purpose? Internet-savvy teenagers will surely find a workaround, whether it is by figuring out their parents’ login information, going to file-sharing sites or using a VPN. If anything, it will send them to darker, less safe parts of the internet.

Most importantly, children must feel they can talk to their parents, as this will help them make better decisions about their sexual health. In fact, Canadian children report desiring more information instead of adults relying on pornography filters.

As uncomfortable as it may be, a good time for a conversation with your child would be during a car ride, when you have privacy and won’t be interrupted. Points worthy of mention include that porn is an exaggeration of sex by actors and that it lacks emotional intimacy. Even content that is promoted as “amateur” or “real life” isn’t realistic. Consent is paramount, and when they are old enough to become sexually active, neither they, nor their partner, should feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do.

Adults in favour of the porn ban fail to realize that sexualized images are ubiquitous today, permeating not only the internet, but also movies, music videos, magazines and video games.

For those concerned about preserving the innocence of the young, education and open conversation will be more productive safeguards than censorship and willful ignorance.