Andrew Vine: Exposing the dirty secret at internet’s dark heart

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David Cameron’s pledge to crackdown on internet porn is welcome, but it will be far from easy.

IT WAS not what a responsible parent expected to find on his 14-year-old son’s smartphone when it went on the blink and he tried to sort out the problem. An explicit pornographic video of a man and woman, running for about five minutes, tucked away amongst music videos and films of his son’s friends larking about.

My friend was shocked, and like many a parent confronted with the unexpected, initially unsure of how best to broach the subject with his son, a happy, well-behaved, intelligent boy.

He talked it over with his wife, and they decided that a direct approach was best. The boy blushed to the roots of his hair and then blurted out what had happened.

One of the other boys at school had found the clip on the internet, and amid much sniggering, it had been passed round.

Reluctantly, my friend got on the phone to the other parents, and an awkward weekend for adults and children alike, full of upset and not a few tears, in a dozen or more perfectly respectable homes was the result.

Among the frustrations that those parents felt was how easily the insidious reach of pornography from the internet had bypassed the precautions they had taken to safeguard their children from unsuitable material.

Parental controls on family computers blocking so-called “adult” material were in place, but still, a curious teenager had somehow accessed the clip. Had it not come to light, it would probably have gone on spreading to every boy with a smartphone in the school year.

The shock of realising how effortlessly pornography could find its way into his family life made my friend – and I’ll bet many more like him – applaud the Prime Minister’s announcement a few days ago that the Government is getting tough with websites that peddle this material.

Explicit sites must demonstrate that they can keep under-18s out by robust age verification, or face being shut down.

That is going to be easier said than done, particularly as so many pornographic sites are based overseas beyond the reach of the Government, but it is a step in the right direction.

A jaw-dropping statistic emerged alongside the announcement – that 10 pornographic websites account for half of all internet views in the UK.

That means the audience for explicit material is vast, and with such a volume of pornography flying around in cyberspace, keeping children away from it is a monumentally difficult task.

But they must be protected from it. Impressionable youngsters can be seriously harmed by exposure to this material. It can distress them, harm their sexual development and even lead to relationship problems once they grow to adulthood.

That is no surprise. Pornography has the darkest of hearts. The objectification of women as creatures with no purpose beyond the sexual gratification of men, to be handled roughly, which lies at the heart of so much is a dangerous idea to lodge in the mind of immature boys going into puberty.

Some are already caught in this nasty, exploitative web. A poll by the charity Childline earlier this year revealed that almost 10 per cent of children aged 12 and 13 worried that they were addicted to watching explicit material. And that is exactly what pornographers want – to keep their audience coming back for more.

Explicit sexual material is psychologically addictive, leading its users down a wretched slope towards the ever more extreme as they become jaded and go in search of something that will replicate the original thrill.

Pornography is the internet’s dirty secret, the driver of so much web traffic and generator of vast amounts of money.

It is more prevalent and easily accessible than at any time in history, and we do not yet know what its long-term effect will be on the generation that has grown up with the internet as part of everyday life.

But it cannot produce anything positive for those who habitually view it. How much heartache, how many broken relationships, how much cruelty it will spawn for those whose perceptions of relationships are warped by it we can only guess at.

Mr Cameron’s determination to do something to protect children from it is valiant and undoubtedly the right thing, but fighting this many-headed hydra that can move itself through cyberspace to escape sanction will be appallingly difficult.

A chastened 14-year-old and his friends have, for now, been steered away from what seemed to them like fun. They have been made to understand that what they had been watching wasn’t real life, and isn’t what the relationship between men and women should be, but instead a grotesque travesty.

At least one parent is reproaching himself for not being more vigilant, and the rest have realised that there is one more thing to worry about as they guide their sons through the teenage years.