Explicit content: Young people and their consumption of pornography

5 May 2021

A new survey shows that websites dedicated to pornography are popular among 16- and 17-year-olds. But social media are playing also a prominent role.

What is the best way of ensuring that minors are not exposed to pornographic content? | © imago / C.Hardt / Future Image

Pornography is a multibillion-dollar business. Pornographic content is virtually ubiquitous on the Internet, and surveys suggest that 25% of all searches lead to explicit content. Given the size of the market, it’s not surprising that young people are drawn to such sites, which are only a couple of clicks away. For some time now, media watchdogs and child-protection agencies have been calling for restrictions on the accessibility of pornographic content. But what is the best way of ensuring that minors are not exposed to such material?

Professor Neil Thurman of the Department of Media and Communication (IfKW) at LMU, in collaboration with statistician Fabian Obster (Universität der Bundeswehr München), has carried out a study on the use of pornographic sites by young people. Based on a survey involving a sample of 1000 British adolescents, the survey also provides pointers for legislators and regulators in Germany. For, according to Thurman, it is very unlikely that English and German adolescents differ from each other very much with respect to their search behavior on the Worldwide Web.

Overall, 78% of users between the ages of 16 and 17 reported that they had encountered pornography on the Internet. Moreover, many of them stated that they visited dedicated pornographic sites frequently. Those who participated in the survey admitted that, on average, they had last viewed such content 6 days prior to filling in the questionnaire. And many respondents said that they had watched porno videos and viewed picture galleries on that very day. Analysis of the responses indicated that adolescents spent an average of 2 hours per month on commercial pornographic websites such as Youporn, Pornhub and MyDirtyHobby, almost always accessed on their smartphones or tablets. The survey also revealed that young consumers are turning to social media portals for access to explicit material. Adolescent users of these sites come from all sections of society and are more likely to be male.

Well acquainted with VPNs and the Tor browser

Thurman also points to some other findings made during the study, which are of immediate relevance to the issue of the protection of minors. In Germany, the UK, France and Canada, efforts are now underway to regulate access to legal online pornography, and in some cases measures have already been implemented. These include provisions for mandatory age verification prior to the admission of users to such websites. But, according to Thurman’s survey, around half of the respondents had already used VPNs or the Tor browser. Both tools anonymize connection data, thus allowing country-specific restrictions to be circumvented. Thurman argues, therefore, that because popular VPNs allow users to appear they are browsing from any one of 90 countries, it is not enough for a small number of jurisdictions to demand that age restrictions be implemented on pornographic websites.

At present, says Thurman, the online pornography market is highly concentrated. It is dominated by a few global firms, such as MindGeek and WGCZ Holdings. Indeed, just a handful of websites account for the majority of worldwide consumption in this area. In the context of measures to protect minors, he therefore suggests that, in addition to country-specific measures, there should also be pressure placed on the major global publishers of pornography, to encourage them to introduce effective age restrictions in all the markets in which they operate. In addition, similar regulations should be applied, as is already happening in the UK, to social-media platforms.

Policy & Internet, 2021

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