The Association for Television on Demand

ATVOD publishes research showing scale of underage access to adult websites

News Article: 28th March 2014


New research published by ATVOD  highlights scale of underage access to adult websites and calls for further Government action to protect children from exposure to hardcore porn online

Startling evidence of children’s exposure to hardcore pornography on the internet is revealed today.

At least 44,000 primary school children accessed an adult website in one month alone – one in 35 of six to 11 year-olds in the UK going online.

And 200,000 under-16’s accessed an adult website from a computer. This is one in 16 children in that age group who went online in the same month.

The research tracked the actions of children and teenagers using the internet from a desktop or laptop in December 2013.

One in five teenage boys under 18  going online were clicking on porn websites from PC’s, and one adult site – which offers free, unrestricted access to thousands of hardcore porn videos – attracted 112,000 of the teenagers.

Research published by the video on demand regulator, The Authority for Television On Demand (“ATVOD”), provides the most authoritative picture yet established of the exposure of children and young people to “R18” material. “R18” is the classification of the strongest video pornography permitted in Britain and covers content which, on a DVD, can be found only in a licensed sex shop or cinema and is restricted to buyers 18 or over. It portrays a range of real, rather than simulated, sex acts.

Sample sizes for the youngest children (six – 11) are relatively small and figures for this age group should be treated with caution as they may exhibit large changes month to month. However, at least 473,000 children between the ages of six and 17 accessed an adult internet service, mostly offshore – one in ten of young people that age who went online.

Most of the major offshore adult services are unregulated and allow free, unrestricted access to hardcore porn to visitors of any age – this includes 23 of the 25 adult websites most commonly accessed from the UK. In contrast, UK services are required by ATVOD to put the videos and stills beyond the reach of children, behind access controls and age verification systems. The regulator follows a precautionary policy, accepting that R18 content “might seriously impair” the young – the test for statutory protection under a European Directive.

Coming  the week after an influential parliamentary committee  urged Government to combat  under-age exposure to online porn, the findings will add urgency to calls for changes in the law, some already promised by government, and other measures to enhance protection of children. Critically, they will also raise the impetus among the big players of the payments industry – the credit card providers and electronic payment processors – who have signalled that they would be willing to prevent cash-flow to porn sites which do not bar access to children if legislation supporting the action were introduced.

“We do not advocate censorship,” said ATVOD chair Ruth Evans.

“There is nothing in the ATVOD Rules which interferes with the right to provide sexually explicit material to an adult online.  But pornography is a product which is produced and designed for use by adults, not children. That is why the industry that makes and sells it calls itself ‘the adult industry’.  There cannot be any justification for UK providers of sexually explicit pornographic material to make such images available to under 18s. The law requires that UK on demand services keep such material out of reach of minors and we are committed to ensuring that UK providers of video on demand services comply with the statutory rules. But we have no control over services that come from outside the UK.

“These findings expose the scale of the problem of child access to pornography on adult websites operated from outside the UK. The Government needs to act urgently with a range of measures to protect children from this content. Key among them is legislation to make it possible for the UK payments industry to prevent funds flowing from this country to websites which allow children to access hardcore pornography.”

Because little has been known about how many children are exposed to on-line hardcore porn in  the UK, and what services they access, ATVOD commissioned an analysis of research data held by Nielsen Netview, worldwide media tracking specialists who analyse user behaviour on-line.

Techniques and technology broadly similar to those used to measure TV audiences were deployed, with a panel of about 45,000 UK internet users. The research data therefore relies not on what children said they did on-line, but on tracking and recording what they actually did.

In this way, the researchers found that one in 20 of all UK visitors to adult websites from a PC or laptop last December was under 18.

Yet, remarkably, the figures are almost bound to be significantly under-stated.

Technical limitations prevent the inclusion of internet usage using a smartphone, tablet or other handheld device. But these devices are often the access route of choice for young people – Ofcom research last year showed that almost a third of children under 16 mainly went on-line using a device other than a laptop, netbook or PC. Among eight to 11 year-olds 18 per cent owned a smartphone: the figure rose to 62 per cent among 12-15 year-olds.

Tellingly, the adult website with the largest proportion of teenage boy visitors from the UK reports that 58 per cent of its total UK traffic last year was from smartphones or tablets. The figures relating to 12 – 17 year-olds are therefore very likely to under-estimate seriously, rather than over-estimate, the total of under-age UK visitors.

The findings are likely to be disturbing even for the 43 per cent of parents who have parental controls installed on the PC, laptop or netbook their child uses at home. Separate EU research last year tested 13  popular parental control packages for PC’s and Macs and found under-blocking rates of between nine and 47 per cent in accessing adult content.

The latest research reveals the size and importance of the UK market for adult content and this will also intensify the focus on action formulated by ATVOD and the payments industry to enhance child protection.

More than 9 million people in the UK accessed an adult website at least once from a PC or laptop in December - one in four of those in the UK who went on-line by that route. They spent more than 1.4 billion minutes on the sites, averaging 15 minutes a visit and typically spending two and a half hours over 10 visits.

“Even without taking account of access from mobile devices – a substantial slice of the user base according to operators – the UK is clearly a significant market for the online adult industry,” said ATVOD chief executive Peter Johnson.

“This makes ‘following the money’ the most compelling strategy for securing enhanced child protection.”

The top five adult sites each had more than 2 million users in December: the leading site more than 2.7 million. The eight most visited adult sites were all free “tube” sites, as were 15 of the top 16 – all located offshore and outside ATVOD regulation.

An adult “tube” website allows users of any age and from any country unrestricted free access to large quantities of hardcore pornographic videos which are provided as a loss leader on a ‘try before you buy’ basis. While viewing this “shop window” of free videos, users of adult tube sites are encouraged to sign up to ‘pay services’ offering, for example, higher quality videos or longer videos. Adult tube site operators also sell advertising space on the website for other services related to the sex industry (such as sexual contact services and live webcams).  Such adult tube sites - open to everyone, without any form of registration or identity or age verification – can not be operated legally in Britain, yet unsurprisingly are the key means by which UK children are likely to access hardcore porn. 

Only one of the 1266 adult websites identified in the research as those visited by UK users was a service regulated in the UK.

“Significant sums are flowing from UK customers to foreign websites which allow children to access hardcore porn. In 2013, The Times estimated the sum could be £180 million a year,” said Mr. Johnson.

“Cutting off that flow of funds to services which allow children to view hardcore porn would provide a powerful incentive for porn websites to put in place effective age verification and access control mechanisms in order to restart the flow of funds from the UK. It would not affect the free services directly – because by definition they do not charge users –  but it would undermine the business model on which they depend.  Deprived of the money which flows to the underlying pay sites, the tube sites simply could not exist.”

 ATVOD is now recommending that government introduces laws to enable the payment industry to block this flow of funds without fear of legal challenge, and to reinforce in law the requirement for UK operators to put R18 material behind access controls. It is also urging government to work on securing changes to European rules to ensure similar children protection measures are in place across the EU.

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For Adults Only? Underage Access to Online Porn