Are a Tenth of the UK's 12-Year-Olds Really 'Addicted' to Porn?

A report released this week – and picked up by half the British press – claimed that a huge number of kids are addicted to pornography. Thing is, porn addiction isn't even a recognised condition.

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02 April 2015, 11:20am

At the beginning of the week, an unsettling headline swept across news sites. A tenth of the UK's 12 to 13-year-olds are, apparently, ADDICTED to porn. The BBC led the charge, rehashing a press release sent out by the NSPCC, which is launching a campaign with Childline – Fight Against Porn Zombies (FAPZ) – to highlight the effects of too much exposure to porn.

Other news outlets followed suit and each story stuck to the same format: scary headline about children unable to stop watching porn, a couple more stats and a quote from Esther Rantzen. No one was questioning the findings themselves.

The aims of the NSPCC campaign are admirable: children are undoubtedly seeing more porn than ever before, and considering the dire state of sex-ed in British schools it's clearly a good thing that the charity is doing what it can to address the issue. But the idea of porn "addiction" is highly contested among academics and medics, so why did so many children put their guilty hands up?

Such inflammatory findings, when published by a respected national charity, would usually be accompanied by a full report of the study. Not in this case. All the NSPCC would offer was an extended press release with some more quotes from concerned parties.

It turns out the study was conducted by a "creative market research" group called OnePoll. "Generate content and news angles with a OnePoll PR survey, and secure exposure for your brand," reads the company's blurb. "Our PR survey team can help draft questions, find news angles, design infographics, write and distribute your story."

The company is super popular on MoneySavingExpert.com, where users are encouraged to sign up and make a few quid. Here's what that website says: "Mega-popular for its speedy surveys, OnePoll runs polls for the press, meaning fun questions about celebs and your love life."

So the company behind these stats about porn addiction are known for their quick and easy surveys and promise to generate headline-grabbing stats. An unusual choice, perhaps, for such a sensitive subject.

When the London School of Economics carried out research into children's internet usage a long list of safeguards were put in place, knowing that children would be asked about sensitive topics such as porn. These included pilot tests to gauge children's state of mind, face-to-face interviews, a self-completion section for sensitive questions to avoid being heard by parents, family members or the interviewer, detailed surveys about the children themselves and measures of mediating factors such as psychological vulnerability. You can read the full 60-page report here.

In contrast, the OnePoll survey included just 11 multiple-choice questions, which could be filled in online. Children were recruited via their parents, who were already signed up to OnePoll. This alone should raise red flags. Perhaps the parents who chose to put their children forward for the survey were already concerned. It also seems likely that parents would have hovered nearby as children filled in the survey (which can't have taken more than ten minutes), surely skewing the results. And finally, does anyone really think that without that grown-up-pleasing tick-box option – "I am addicted to pornography" – children would have diagnosed themselves as such?

Professor Clarissa Smith is Professor of Sexual Cultures at the University of Sunderland and a veteran researcher in the field of young people and sexuality.

"Why aren't they being entirely transparent with the research?" she asked me. "If this was really robust, they would be sending the report to everybody, they wouldn't be hiding it.

"There's absolutely no way an organisation like [OnePoll] could conduct the kind of in depth interviews you need to really engage with young people on pornography. I cannot conceive of a child answering honestly in front of a parent. The dimensions of parent-pleasing there are horrific. I wouldn't want to sit and answer a questionnaire about porn in front of my dad."

Another problem is that "pornography addiction" isn't actually a recognised medical category. Research has not shown any difference in the brains of hypersexual people in response to stimuli, as is the case with drug and alcohol addiction.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that children aren't viewing porn, or that, for some of them, it's a problem.

"In addition to the survey, ChildLine receives contacts from young people who are worried that they are addicted to porn," NSPCC spokesperson Grania Hyde-Smith told me. "They feel that they can't stop watching it and they may feel dependent on it. Threads on our message boards that mention porn in the title receive around 18,000 hits per month. Many young people tell us that porn has affected their self-esteem and caused them to have body image issues. They tell us that it has made them feel they have to behave in a certain way to be attractive and, in some cases, it's made them do things they didn't feel ready to do because they felt that's what's expected of them."

There's no question that some children are upset by viewing porn. But does suggesting that they have an addiction really help anyone? The term is a loaded one.

"I have no objection with the NSPCC's conclusions that we have to talk to young people about sex, love, respect and consent," says Smith. "I agree entirely. But why on earth are they using the term 'porn addiction' to [apply to] young people?

"We don't talk about addiction as a neutral thing. We talk about it in terms of treatments and interventions. That language is giving a particular kind of knowledge to kids; that sex and representations of sex are dangerous and addicting and that they need to be seeking treatment or that they should be ashamed."

Like Smith, youth worker and sex educator Justin Hancock, the founder of sexual education website BishUK, is doubtful that school playgrounds are full of porn-addicted 12-year-olds.

"My own experience of working directly with young people backs up the research – that is to say, many, or even most, young people don't watch porn," Hancock told me. "Of course a small minority of young people worry about how much time they spend watching porn, but this is a very subjective measure as, for some people, five minutes a week may be too much. It's very unhelpful to talk about porn addiction with the lack of nuance reported in this study."

@frankiemullin

More stories about porn:

Soft Porn, OFCOM and Dickheads: One Night Behind the Scenes at Babestation

What I Learned from Giving Up Porn for a Month

A Short History of Female Ejaculation