Age checks ain’t nuthin but a blunder
Amongst the shiny tech announcements in the Queen’s Speech this year was a crowd-pleasing attempt to crack down on the menace of online pornography. Like most governmental efforts to tackle this issue, it is massively misguided.
The big idea — with very little substance behind it — is to put all online porn behind age verification checks. It is an idea full of more holes than the content it aims to block. The UK has very limited jurisdiction. There’s no mechanism beyond payment cards for verifying age online. And we all know that young people are much more adept at circumventing controls than governments are at creating them.
But all this techno-nitpicking ignores the more important point: that the whole idea is flawed in principle as well as in practice.
As the BBC says, “According to the government, one in five children aged 11–17 has seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them.”
Even assuming a robust age bar could be put in front of online porn, it isn’t going to change this. Because we are surrounded by sexual images all the time. On television, newsagent shelves, and yes, on the internet, including the sidebars and footers of many non-adult websites. The adult websites themselves are a tiny fraction of the problem.
If we want to change the statistic above we need to do three things.
Firstly, we need to take a slightly wider look at the way sex, and women particularly, are portrayed in our media. Sadly in 2016 we still have a long way to go on this front, and this is one place where the rate of change doesn’t seem to be accelerating. So let me suggest two, more practical measures.
We need to be more conscious of the ways that our children access information and be engaged in their early experiences until we are confident they can safely navigate for themselves and be trusted not to explore inappropriate areas. It’s hard for parents who haven’t grown up with ubiquitous internet access to maintain awareness of just how many ways unexpected information can reach our childrens’ eyes and ears. It’s only through taking more time to experience it with them that we can manage it.
Which leads to the third and final step, education. If we want to stop children being shocked and upset — and worse, influenced — by the images they see, then they need to be able to understand them in the proper context. A context based on an understanding of love, sex and relationships. That understanding has to be taught.
Unfortunately it’s politically rather easier to make meaningless promises about tackling a technological bogeyman than it is to properly address what is a wider societal challenge.