Is sex education key to porn battle?

20.09.2013 13:27

Parents have always worried about
their children accessing inappropriate
material and images on the web, but
the rise of smartphones and tablets
means parents have even less control
over their offspring's online
activities.
When it comes to teenagers' attitudes to
online pornography, is sex education at
school the key to making it a turn-off?
A recent survey by Ofcom found that
children are spending more time online,
are more likely to go online alone and
are using a wider range of devices to
access the internet.
In 2012, 28% of children aged five to 15
owned a smartphone and among those
aged 12 to 15, this rose to 62% - an
increase of 21% on the previous year.
Fifteen per cent of girls aged 12-15 say
their phone is the device they use most
often to go online at home.
If teenagers are surfing the web alone in
their bedrooms then there is a risk they
could be exposed to online pornography
- this is the generation for whom social
networking sites, webcams and photo-
sharing are all a normal part of growing
up.
Influences
According to a report from Middlesex
University this year, commissioned by
the Children's Commissioner for England,
"a significant number of children access
pornography".
For Dr Miranda Horvath, senior lecturer
in psychology and co-author of the
report, porn is defined as "full explicit
shots of sexual acts and genitalia" - not
just a picture of a naked woman on page
three of the Sun, although many studies
of this subject do not give definitions.
The report found that pornography
influences attitudes towards sex and
relationships and could lead to young
people having sex at an earlier age.
Yet experts say there is very little
evidence for how it impacts directly on
behaviour, nor which groups are most
likely to access it.
Dr Horvath says the key is to provide
children and young people with the
space to ask questions about
pornography and talk about their
experiences of it.
"Young people have so much to say on
this issue. They should be at the centre
of the research - but much research is
not designed with children in mind."
Her research shows that boys and young
men are more likely to seek out porn
than girls and young women. Females are
more likely to have unwanted exposure
to it.
The motivations for accessing it include
curiosity, pleasure, peer influence and as
a source of information.
'Non-judgmental'
Dr Horvath believes that mandatory sex
education lessons at school are an
essential starting point for getting
children to talk about sex and
relationships, which could reduce the
appetite for sexually explicit material.
"The lessons should be non-judgemental
and age-appropriate and not just a one-
shot thing."
Dr Mark Limmer, a lecturer in public
health at Lancaster University, agrees
that sex and relationship education in
schools should give out positive
messages about sex.
"We do need children and young people
to understand that sex has its place in a
relationship, that it's pleasurable and
intimate. Schools should take a healthy
perspective on it.
"Somehow we're always saying to
children 'don't do something'... We
should help and support them rather
than saying 'don't do that!'."
He suggests that boys and girls can
become drawn to pornography if their
questions about sex and relationships
are not answered in the classroom in the
same way that strong messages on
smoking can encourage, rather than
discourage, teenagers to try the habit.
He says it starts with lessons on gender
equality in pre-school and talking
differently about sex.
"If we get those bits right then it makes
later conversations easier," Dr Limmer
says.
Body parts
Lucy Emmerson, from the Sex Education
Forum, supports good quality sex
education in schools which deals with a
whole range of topics including consent,
body image, gender and power
imbalances.
But, she says, a third of schools currently
have inadequate sex and relationship
education according to Ofsted.
"Learning about these issues will equip
young people to be more in control and
the chances are they will be less likely to
look for answers about sex and
relationships elsewhere."
In her view, it all begins with teaching
primary school children the proper
names for their body parts, so that
adults can feel comfortable discussing
them too.
Then children should be taught about
what is legal and what is illegal and the
dangers of 'sexting' - sending sexually
explicit messages and photographs
between mobile phones.
"It's very important to be proactive. We
can't wait for them to find pornography.
Instead, let's talk about it openly.