In many ways, pornography is the modern-day equivalent of tobacco.
Acceptance in previous decades is now giving way to mounting evidence about the public health and societal harm it’s causing.
Research into the long-term effects of watching pornography is gaining momentum both here in New Zealand and overseas. It has already been labelled a “public health crisis” in the United States, and now is an appropriate time for the New Zealand public and government officials to seriously examine the issues at stake.
Of particular importance is the impact pornography is having on our children.
The Current Situation
Today’s youngsters are growing up in a technological environment which their parents and grandparents were never exposed to.
The internet plays a vital role in how our children learn, interact and play both in the classroom and at home. But that also means it’s easier to access pornography than ever before. One click of a button can expose children to images and sexual content which their young minds are not equipped to handle.
Research undertaken in early 2017 by Auckland University student Ashlee-Ann Sneller found most young people were not intentionally looking for pornography, but instead had clicked on pop-ups on their computers or phones, watched it on Facebook or clicked on a link which then sparked their curiosity.
She also found that children as young as 10 are watching porn and think it is a realistic portrayal of adult sexual relationships instead of a fantasy.
It’s this ability to distort children’s views on love which is of major concern. Pornography often features aggressive content which is degrading towards women. We cannot afford to have our children grow up thinking this is the sexual norm.
Bay of Plenty Sexual Assault Services chief executive Kylie McKee says there’s no single factor motivating abusers but access to smartphones and the internet has made pornography more accessible in the past few years.
She says widespread and easy access to pornography is contributing to our disturbing rate of sexual assaults. In the Bay of Plenty alone, almost 100 children under the age of 12 report being sexually assaulted every year. Internationally, experts say that is just the tip of the iceberg and reports of child-on-child sex offences are skyrocketing.
McKee says over half of all sexual assault victims go on to develop some form of mental illness later in life. They are more likely to self-harm, suffer from psychiatric disorders, PTSD, depression, commit suicide or turn to substance abuse.
Meanwhile, international research has already proven that porn is also addictive. It changes and rewires the brain, and use often escalates – in much the same way that drug addictions take hold.
It is these concerns which have prompted many countries to try and protect children from exposure to pornography. These measures have had mixed success.
What Have Other Nations Tried?
The UK has been pro-active in trying to protect children from pornographic material. The biggest Internet Service Providers including Sky Broadband, BT and TalkTalk) are legally required to have content filtering services to block porn. These filters are switched on by default, and subscribers have to actually switch them off if they wish to visit porn sites. Sky Broadband has reported that 70% of their customers have left their filter TURNED ON since it was introduced 4 years ago.
Many of the smaller UK ISPs have now followed suit. However, this approach does raise censorship and privacy concerns. In an attempt to meet legislative requirements, some ISPs have ‘over-blocked’ websites which do not contain any pornographic material at all.
This approach also doesn’t allow customers to set preferences or choose exactly what should be filtered. Nor is there any variation in how easy filtering settings can be changed for different individuals or devices in a household.
With regard to mobile phones, every account in the UK is now assumed to belong to a child and therefore access to adult content is restricted unless the account holder completes an age verification procedure.
Israel is looking to go one step further. There are two legislative bills being considered at present. One would require ISPs to provide filtering software free of charge and inform customers of its availability by text message or email. The other would also incentivise ISPs by giving them public funds for each customer they sign up to an anti-porn and anti-gambling filter.
Israeli internet consumers already have the right to request filtering software from their ISPs, and neither of the bills under consideration would change the voluntary opt-in nature of the filters.
However, privacy concerns have been raised. Critics of the proposed laws say Israeli ISPs could end up tracking people’s internet surfing habits, creating de facto (and easily leaked) ‘black lists’ of people who watch pornography or gamble online.
In the US some states have passed resolutions declaring porn to be a “public health crisis”. Utah has led the way, with their Governor (Gary Herbert) signing a non-binding resolution in 2016 that recognizes porn can impact brain development, increase risky sexual behaviour, and lead to sexual addiction. It is hoped these declarations will lead to new laws which will allow those harmed by the porn industry to sue the makers of such content.
Utah State Senator Todd Weiler has described the proposed law as follows:
“This bill is not telling any purveyor of pornography that they cannot distribute their product in Utah. We are not telling any consumer that you cannot consume a pornographic product in Utah. What we are saying is that if someone is damaged by your product, that they could take their best shot in court and have to meet every other evidentiary standard that already exists and have to show damages.”
As a result of the backlash in Utah, porn sites themselves are now introducing a public health warning label to advise viewers that the following pornographic content is hazardous to their health.
What Can Be Done In New Zealand?
Like any hardcore drug, removing pornography and repairing the damage it’s caused in New Zealand isn’t going to be easy.
Quick fixes, such as blocking all pornographic content into New Zealand, is not an effective solution. There are believed to be 40 million pornography websites worldwide according to one estimate by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team.
Instead, public funding should be allocated to a number of areas including: raising awareness about the harm being caused; education about the various tools available; and counselling for those struggling with a porn addiction.
Awareness and Education
The New Zealand Government needs to take a public stance that pornography is harmful and addictive. Taxpayer funding then needs to be allocated in a similar fashion to drug, alcohol and sexual abuse programmes.
Government funding should also be made available for more in-depth research about the effects of porn here in New Zealand.
We need to promote greater education of the following:
- Educate parents, teenagers, children, and society in general about the harm pornography can cause.
- Educate people about where they can seek help for porn addictions for themselves or their loved ones.
- Educate families directly about what technical ‘blocking’ options already exist – how to ‘opt in’ and how setting can be altered or switched off.
- Educate ISPs how to respond to parents seeking tools to protect their family.
Existing NZ filtering and filtering issues
New Zealand already provides a filter for child pornography called the Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System.
Are there ways around filtering? Yes, the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), DNS hijacking and encryption tools mean young people can override filter settings. But studies in countries like the UK prove that such tampering cases are minimal, with the vast majority of children unaware or unable to perform such technical manoeuvres.
Compulsory Safe Internet for Businesses Operating in Public Spaces
I recommend any premise where children can access the internet (including, but not limited to, cafes, restaurants, schools, kindergartens, agencies, libraries, and hospitals), should have to use a filtering service of their choice.
Censorship, Privacy, and Preference
It should be left up to parents to determine adequate protection for their children inside the perimeter of their own broadband, and on smartphones using cellular data networks.
Various technology solutions do already exist which allow people to block pornographic content from their devices. This includes ‘Safe Search’ options when using Google’s search engine, and ‘Restricted Mode’ for popular websites like YouTube. My own organisation, Safe Surfer, is designed to optimise all the technical options that already exist and ensure all devices using the same Wi-Fi connection and devices using Cellular Data Networks are covered.
Global Pressure Is Building
I believe the New Zealand government has the responsibility to ensure pornography companies are kept accountable, and to protect Kiwi kids from being sexually exploited on the internet.
Globally, all large international technology providers should be petitioned to provide ‘Safe Search’ options for children and for those who do not wish to stumble upon pornographic material.
Filtering will also force porn providers to implement and audit age-verification methods or risk losing profit from New Zealand viewers.
Technology companies such as Google, Bing, Yahoo and YouTube already provide options to filter content across their networks, with more companies being pushed in the same direction. Snapchat was petitioned to change their content moderation settings.
In summary, we cannot afford to leave our young people’s sexual education to the porn industry. New Zealand families need help and support to deal with this issue now and prevent this distorted view from becoming our youngsters’ reality.
Co-Founder of Safe Surfer
phone: +6421 767988
Keeping youth safe in the age of pornography
Source: University of Auckland
Date: 02 February 2017
Sexual assaults on children rising in the Bay
Source: Bay of Plenty Times
Date: 02 September 2016
Sky Broadband Shield roll out: an update
Source: Sky Broadband
Date: 14 July 2015
Government asks internet service companies to block pornography sites, upgrade systems
Source: ET Bureau / Economic Times
Date: 11 November 2014
Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System
Source: The Department of Internal Affairs
The voice of the United Kingdom’s mobile network operators
Source: Mobile UK
Anti-porn bill clears first hurdle amid privacy worries
Source: Times of Israel
Date: 16 March 2017
South Dakota and Virginia join Utah in declaring pornography a public health crisis
Date: 24 February 2017
Lawmaker’s latest anti-porn bill finds committee support
Source: Deseret News Utah
Date: 9 February 2017
#NoThanksSnapchat– Let Users Opt Out of Sexually Explicit Featured Stories
Police figures reveal rise of almost 80% in reports of child-on-child sex offences
Source: Barnardos UK
Date: 03 February 2017