Late last month, the NSPCC released some startling findings. A tenth of all 12-to-13-year-olds were addicted to porn, it found. One in five had been shocked or upset by the things they'd found online. Twelve per cent had made their own porn.
The findings were widely reported. Immediately afterwards, culture secretary Sajid Javid promised new censorship measures, with a regulator ensuring adult sites have age verification technology to prevent young people accessing porn.
The cycle from research to reporting to promises of legislation was accomplished in the space of a morning. It was a remarkably effective operation.
The only problem was, it was all nonsense. The NSPCC research was hogwash.
As Vice journalist Frankie Mullin discovered, the NSPCC had commissioned the research from "creative market research" group OnePoll, a survey firm which encourages web users to sign up and win money by filling out surveys. It's quite difficult to make that money – they pay 10p a survey and there's a minimum payout of £40, so you'll need 400 of them under your belt before you see a penny. In 2010, they were the least reliable pollster by some margin.
The children who filled out the 11 questions were recruited directly by their parents, who presumably were nearby as they filled it out. In short, academic research this ain't. Tellingly, the NSPCC failed to send out any further information with the press release.
Yesterday I signed an open letter to the child protection group's chief executive, Peter Wanless, together with other journalists, doctors, academics and campaigners. We pointed out that, if anything, the survey only showed that young people are fearful of harm from pornography, although even that is a reach. We raised concerns that the respected charity was passing off work by a "creative market research" group as proper academic research. And we took a brief look at the available work on the subject, which is very mixed on the effect of pornography and the scientific validity of so-called porn addiction.
Child safety online: Genuine concerns exist, but hysteria abounds
The NSPCC report shows hysteria has clearly gripped the child protection charity. It has come to its own conclusions, for its own reasons, on pornography and instructed a research group which would give it the findings it needed to start a campaign.
Who knows? Perhaps the NSPCC is onto something. I am not as sanguine as some libertarians and sex campaigners about the effect of porn on children. Porn is about fantasy, something those who have no experience of sex will struggle to distinguish from reality. It's perfectly possible that regular exposure to hard core pornography from a young age will damage children's sexual development.
If so, the solution would still not involve Javid's magical age verification technology. This simply does not exist, unless one is willing to force all internet users to prove their age, probably with a passport, before going online. That would be so draconian it's hard to image – but that does not necessarily rule out Conservative support for it. The party has fully signed up to the growing hysteria around online pornography.
The only real solution is, as ever, education. Children have to be mentally and emotionally equipped, in school and by parents, for what porn is before they come in contact with it. Beyond that, realistic and proportionate efforts should be made to limit their exposure to it.
None of this appears to have moved the NSPCC. For it to look after children it must maintain the integrity and reliability of its brand but this type of nonsense raises serious questions about its credibility. That puts children at risk.
The race from report to legislation apeared quicker than usual for the NSPCC research
But the blame does not stop at the NSPCC. The press reported the so-called research in droves without commenting on whether it was reliable. It then reported on Javid's age verification proposal but mostly failed to explain that it was either impossible or radically authoritarian. It must do better. In its own hysteria over pornography, it allowed its readers to be misled and in fact participated in that misinformation. The government then waded in and proposed far-reaching changes to the law.
This is the modern British phenomenon of post-modern politics: imaginary research, followed by imaginary journalism, followed by imaginary legislation. A castle built on sand. The NSPCC has serious questions to answer about how it found itself so willingly embracing this model.
An NSPCC spokesperson said:
"We listen to the worries of children everyday, including those about porn. What matters to us is that we address their concerns. We take a diverse approach in listening to young people's voices and this poll is part of a wide body of research."
The full text of the letter is below:
To: Peter Wanless, Chief Executive Officer, NSPCC
Dear Mr Wanless,
We write to express our deep concern about a report you published last week, which received significant press coverage. The report claimed that a tenth of 12-13 year olds believe they are addicted to pornography, and appears to have been fed to the media with accompanying quotes suggesting that pornography is causing harm to new generations of young people.
Your study appears to rely entirely on self-report evidence from young people of 11 and older, and so is not – as it has been presented – indicative of actual harm but rather, provides evidence that some young people are fearful that pornography is harming them. In other words, this study looks at the effects on young people of widely published but unevidenced concerns about pornography, not the effects of pornography itself.
It appears that your study was not an academic one, but was carried out by a “creative market research” group called OnePoll. We are concerned that you, a renowned child protection agency, are presenting the findings of an opinion poll as a serious piece of research. Management Today recently critiqued OnePoll in an article that opened as follows: “What naive readers may not realise is that much of what is reported as scientific is not in fact genuine research at all, but dishonest marketing concocted by PR firms.”
There have been countless studies into the effects of porn since the late 1960s, and yet the existence of the kinds of harm you report remains contested. In fact, many researchers have reached the opposite conclusion: that increased availability of porn correlates with healthier attitudes towards sex, and with steadily reducing rates of sexual violence. For example, the UK government’s own research generated the following conclusion in 2005: “There seems to be no relationship between the availability of pornography and an increase in sex crimes …; in comparison there is more evidence for the opposite effect.”
The very existence of “porn addiction” is questionable, and it is not an accepted medical condition. Dr David J Ley, a psychologist specialising in this field, says: “Sex and porn can cause problems in people’s lives, just like any other human behavior or form of entertainment. But, to invoke the idea of “addiction” is unethical, using invalid, scientifically and medically-rejected concepts to invoke fear and feed panic.”
Immediately following the release of your report, the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid announced that the Tories would be introducing strong censorship of the Internet if they win the next election, in order to “protect children” from pornography. The Culture Secretary’s new announcement would probably lead to millions of websites being blocked by British ISPs, should it come into force. We would point out the experience of the optional “porn filters”, introduced in early 2014, which turned out in practise to block a vast range of content including sex education material.
The BBC news website quotes you as saying, in response to the minister’s announcement: “Any action that makes it more difficult for young people to find this material is to be welcomed.” We disagree: we believe that introducing Chinese-style blocking of websites is not warranted by the findings of your opinion poll, and that serious research instead needs to be undertaken to determine whether your claims of harm are backed by rigorous evidence.
Jerry Barnett, CEO Sex & Censorship
Frankie Mullin, Journalist
Clarissa Smith, Professor of Sexual Cultures, University of Sunderland
Julian Petley, Professor of Screen Media, Brunel University
David J. Ley PhD. Clinical Psychologist (USA)
Dr Brooke Magnanti
Feona Attwood, Professor of Media & Communication at Middlesex University
Martin Barker, Emeritus Professor at University of Aberystwyth
Jessica Ringrose, Professor, Sociology of Gender and Education, UCL Institute of Education
Ronete Cohen MA, Psychologist
Dr Meg John Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, The Open University
Kath Albury, Associate Professor, UNSW Australia
Myles Jackman, specialist in obscenity law
Dr Helen Hester, Middlesex University
Justin Hancock, youth worker and sex educator
Ian Dunt, Editor in Chief, Politics.co.uk
Ally Fogg, Journalist
Dr Emily Cooper, Northumbria University
Gareth May, Journalist
Dr Kate Egan, Lecturer in Film Studies, Aberystwyth University
Dr Ann Luce, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Communication, Bournemouth University
John Mercer, Reader in Gender and Sexuality, Birmingham City University
Dr. William Proctor, Lecturer in Media, Culture and Communication, Bournemouth University
Dr Jude Roberts, Teaching Fellow, University of Surrey
Dr Debra Ferreday, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Lancaster University
Jane Fae, author of “Taming the beast” a review of law/regulation governing online pornography
Michael Marshall, Vice President, Merseyside Skeptics Society
Martin Robbins, Journalist
Assoc. Prof. Paul J. Maginn (University of Western Australia)
Dr Lucy Neville, Lecturer in Criminology, Middlesex University
Alix Fox, Journalist and Sex Educator
Dr Mark McCormack, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Durham University
Chris Ashford, Professor of Law and Society, Northumbria University
Diane Duke, CEO Free Speech Coalition (USA)
Dr Steve Jones, Senior Lecturer in Media, Northumbria University
Dr Johnny Walker, Lecturer in Media, Northumbria University