Regulation of internet pornography is tricky, but we can do better

A snapshot of under-18s’ access to internet pornography and what it tells us about legislative approaches

Social media is frequently in the crosshairs for failing to self-regulate. In the UK, a draft Government bill proposes a framework for online safety, particularly children’s, involving legislation, accountability and oversight for tech companies. But is it enough to protect adolescents from online porn?

There is scant evidence about the media platforms and technologies young people use to access pornography, so my colleague Fabian Obster and I conducted a survey of 1,001 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK. Our findings support the Government’s move to regulate social media, but without an international approach and other countermeasures, it seems unlikely their proposals will offer a magic bullet.

We found that almost four in five 16- and 17-year-olds had seen online pornography, and their exposure was frequent, most commonly on the day of the survey. They were accessing this content via both social media and dedicated sites: 63% of respondents had viewed pornography via social media platforms, 51% via search engines and 47% on dedicated porn websites. Almost half of respondents had used a virtual private network (VPN) or Tor browser that could be used to get around age verification checks imposed by a single country.

The current regulatory landscape

Part Three of the Digital Economy Act 2017 states that legal online commercial pornography accessible from the United Kingdom must deploy age verification controls, yet this Act has never been implemented. Critics of the measures contained within the Act argue that they do not target sites where less than a third of the content is pornographic, and where it is provided free of charge. These are largely the social media sites and search engines where the youngsters in our survey were most likely to have come across sexually explicit images, at least once.

More recently the Government announced that it would not be commencing this part of the Act because the age verification regulations were not coherent and comprehensive and because they did not cover social media platforms. As an alternative they have developed the draft Online Safety Bill, published in May 2021, which places a duty of care on companies to improve online safety by "addressing … categories of harmful online content including "underage exposure to … pornography."

Some have called for implementation of Part Three of the Digital Economy Act as a ‘stopgap’ measure before any Online Safety Act comes into force. Given the frequency with which our research shows dedicated porn websites are viewed by 16- and 17-year-olds, waiting for the Online Safety Act to come into force certainly carries risks, allowing adolescents, at a formative age, to continue to regularly access online content that is problematic in many ways. A recent study published in the British Journal of Criminology found that one in eight videos on the homepages of the three biggest porn sites appeared to show non-consensual or incestuous acts.

The prevalence and recency of pornography use in 16- and 17-year-olds

Through YouthSight’s online panel, we asked five questions of young people, aiming to find out what proportion had seen sexually explicit videos or images on any of eight named media platforms, how recently, and which platforms they use to view such content. We asked how much time they spend visiting dedicated pornography sites each month and using which devices, and whether they were aware of, or used, technology that can circumvent restrictions on legal internet pornography, such as VPNs or Tor browsers.

Seventy-eight per cent had seen online pornography and their exposure was frequent: on average six days before but most commonly on the day of the survey. Users averaged two hours and eighteen minutes a month on dedicated pornography sites, and the vast majority of the time – 87% – was on mobile devices. Almost half – 46% – had already used technology that could circumvent restrictions imposed by a single country.

No single approach will be effective

Such widespread use of technologies like VPNs that could allow age verification to be circumvented means that neither the Digital Economy Act nor a new Online Safety Act would offer a complete solution.

The UK is not alone in debating or implementing legislation to regulate legal online pornography. France, Germany and Canada are too. But they are just three jurisdictions. One of the most popular VPNs (ExpressVPN) allows its users to browse from 94 countries. There is almost no chance that all of those countries will introduce legal requirements for age verification on online porn sites.

In the absence of a comprehensive international approach, and given the workaround technologies available, it seems important to explore other ways to reduce children’s exposure to online pornography.

Given the relatively concentrated nature of the market – just six sites account for more than 75% of the total monthly visits to porn sites in the UK – it would be good strategy to put pressure on the small number of global companies – for example MindGeek and WGCZ Holdings – that facilitate most online pornography consumption. Pressing them to implement age verification across all the markets they operate in might be fruitful.

However, like the UK’s initial attempt to legislate, this would only impact the dedicated pornography sites and not social media. As our research shows, such an approach is too limited, and any international approach should involve social media and tech companies too.

If governments really want to protect young people from online pornography, they need to get serious about regulating social media and cooperate with other governments as well as with global pornography distributors. Measures taken in individual jurisdictions, or that focus on only some media platforms, are unlikely to reduce children’s exposure to online pornography as much as some hope.

The full study “The regulation of internet pornography: What a survey of under-18s tells us about the necessity for and potential efficacy of emerging legislative approaches” is published in the international peer-reviewed journal, Policy & Internet.

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