Dani Garavelli: Frank debate the only way to negotiate web of deceit

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT CAME as a real shock when I ­discovered a child my son’s age – he was 12 at the time – could use a laptop to surf for porn.

I’m not suggesting that he ever has, but one day, through a confluence of circumstances, I realised it was possible and that the images he had ­access to were a bit more graphic than the Page 3 pictures my brothers’ friends used to hoard in their bedrooms.

Devastated, my first instinct was to take control. Tooled up with knowledge gleaned from a school seminar on “teenagers and social media”, I set up filters and considered my job done. But it didn’t take long for me to realise I was kidding myself; by then my son was already going on sleepovers and had an Xbox and a smartphone. If he ever really wanted to view these images, then only confiscating all his gadgets and locking him in his room 24/7 would stop him. And I believe there are laws against that.

Now when I hear experts lecture parents about taking responsibility for their children’s internet use, I roll my eyes in much the same way as my son does when I ask him to tell me about his day. People who think it’s possible (or even desirable) to keep a constant check on the activities of a child past the age of 14, I’ve concluded, ­either don’t have one or are deeply ­deluded about their capacity for deception.

And yet I do acknowledge the increasing consumption of internet porn amongst underage youngsters does seem to be a problem. Not perhaps on the scale some scaremongers would have us believe. But enough to trouble some teachers. A survey of 500 by the Times Educational Supplement last week found more than a third believed most of their pupils were regularly viewing hardcore images, while three-quarters believed pornography was having a damaging impact on behaviour.

One said children under 11 were under pressure to perform sexual acts, while others complained of boys using derogatory language and “awful” behaviour towards girls. It’s a worrying development, particularly if you put it beside a study by Plymouth University, which suggested one third of young people were hooked on porn before they were sexually active, and the steady trickle of court cases in which heavy porn consumption is being cited as a factor in sexual attacks by young boys.

In any case, it stands to reason doesn’t it? If children are exposed to graphic images of fantasy sex, where the men and women are honed and hairless, where pecs and boobs are the size of melons and where everyone is up for anything and everything, their view of what sex is like for ordinary people is likely to be distorted.

In particular, looking at porn seems to set up unrealistic expectations about physical perfection. Those silicone-enhanced bodies are a lot to live up to. No wonder boys obsess about six-packs and girls shave every inch of their skins.

With all this in mind, the National Association of Headteachers’ suggestion that porn should be tackled during sex education lessons seems sensible. How better to get kids whose only previous discussion of the subject has involved swapping website addresses and sniggering to think about those images – and the consequences of viewing them – than in a classroom?

I caught a snippet on the radio of the type of thing the union is proposing; it involved showing the class a photograph of what an “ordinary” woman looks like – presumably she had pubic hair, flabby bits and breasts the size nature intended. It went on to explain – in a humorous, but not flippant manner – that women are more than just “wank-fodder”; that they have brains and personalities and aren’t there simply to service men’s needs.

In as much as it confronted the objectification of women in language teenagers could relate to, it seemed pretty effective. The pupils were also encouraged to think about the potential exploitation involved in porn and reflect on what effect regular consumption might have on future, real-life relationships.

Of course, you could, and probably should, be having such conversations with your teens at home; but, delivered in isolation, I fear most parents’ efforts would come across as preachy and out of touch. The beauty of tackling it in school is that, forced to engage with their peers, they may discover they’re not as self-assured and worldly-wise as their smart-alecky playground quips would tend to suggest.

I am not implacably opposed to the government tackling Internet Service Providers. If it were technically possible, I would approve of the proposal to force people to opt in – rather than out – of access to porn sites. The idea that it’s the thin end of the wedge so far as censorship is concerned is an argument conjured up by those who don’t want to admit to their own predilections. Is it censorship to limit the borrowing of books to those in possession of a library card? But I’ve little faith that blocking would work; either the parameters would be too wide so they’d inadvertently encompass educational sites or they would be too narrow, leaving parents with a false sense of security. And either way, kids would be way ahead of parents in terms of circumventing it.

No, the way forward is, as always, frank and open debate. And to accept that, in the end, teenagers make their own decisions. I don’t envy them trying to pick out a path through adolescence in the information age though. It was much easier when all you had to worry about was spots and perfecting your snogging by practising on your hands. «