NSPCC accused of risking its reputation and 'whipping up moral panic' with study into porn addiction among children

Campaigners say the charity's 'flimsy research', which found that a tenth of 12 to 13-year-olds fear addiction to pornography, could have 'very dangerous' results

The NSPCC has been accused of “deliberately whipping up a moral panic” with a study suggesting a tenth of all 12- to 13-year-olds fear they are “addicted” to pornography.

In an open letter to the child protection organisation’s chief executive Peter Wanless, a group of doctors, academics, journalists and campaigners criticised the NSPCC for “suggesting that pornography is causing harm to new generations of young people”.

Peter Liver, director of the NSPCC’s ChildLine service, presented the survey of 700 12- to 13-year-olds and said: “Worryingly, [young people] tell ChildLine that watching porn is making them feel depressed, giving them body image issues, making them feel pressured to engage in sexual acts they’re not ready for and some even feel they are addicted to porn.”

The results of the NSPCC study saw the Conservative Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, declare that his party would introduce new age-restriction measures designed to “protect our children from harmful material”.

But the open letter from experts said that “the existence of the kinds of harm [the NSPCC] reports remains contested”, adding that “the very existence of porn addiction is questionable”.

Jerry Barnett, a campaigner and author who posted the open letter on the Sex & Censorship website, said this progression from “flimsy research” to further censorship was “a very dangerous thing”.

He told The Independent: “The NSPCC and Childline, organisations that exist for the protection of children, are quite deliberately using an atrocious study to feed into moral panic, and it’s clearly been coordinated with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

Mr Barnett said that regulators had been using porn for several years to justify internet censorship and “create a case for turning Britain back into a digital island”.

“The panic itself is fairly old,” he said. “Falsely linking porn to sexual violence and body issues and so on are all old claims which have been discredited.

“But the fact that the NSPCC, with its trusted brand and reputation, is prepared to come out with such flimsy research is shocking.”

Mr Barnett said he supported better sex education and that the tools to stop younger children for viewing porn were already available.

And he said that there was research to suggest that the increased availability of porn in recent years had actually corresponded with a reduction in sexual violence.

“If you try to clamp down on that there’s a risk you reverse the clock on that beneficial trend over the past two to three decades,” he said.

An NSPCC spokesman 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 open letter and a list of signatories is as follows. It first appeared here.

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.

Signatories:

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

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