TYPE INTO GOOGLE any common female name, or the name of a sweet (such as a lollipop) or a flower (a blue orchid, say) and up will come links to websites that open on to a disturbing new world - a world of extreme pornography that includes images of child rape and other acts of sexual torture. But these are not sites restricted to private systems requiring credit-card payments or age verification; indeed, they are easily accessible by children.
It is now estimated that 12 per cent of our five- to seven-year- olds and 16 per cent of eight- to 17-year-olds have unintentionally stumbled on to some of the estimated 250 million pages of pornography on the internet, while 38 per cent of older teens admit to seeking out such sites. And what they find is a far cry from the "top shelf" magazines their parents might have stashed under their mattresses when they were teens.
In chat rooms, meanwhile, it takes only the input of minimal personal details for a person anywhere in the world to be alerted when a child goes online - and then to instigate a conversation to explore and exploit the child's interests and insecurities. Research across several countries shows that 31 per cent of young people aged from nine to 19 who go online at least once a week have received uninvited sexual comments.
According to Ofcom, 66 per cent of parents say they are concerned about what a child might access on the internet, and at the top of their list of concerns is exposure to sexually explicit material. It is not just knowing that graphic, violent pornography is available on the internet; parents are also worrying about the impact such material may have on their children's - and particularly their sons' - emotional and intellectual development.
Helen, who has three boys - Sam, aged 13, Jake, aged 15, and Gary, aged 16 - admits to being anxious about what they are viewing on the net. All three of her sons display the technological savvy characteristic of young people from the so-called "internet generation". Jake helps his mother download music on to her iPod and access that vital episode of Desperate Housewives she missed. Sam uses his skill with graphics software to format Jake's history coursework. Gary, who is dyslexic, has had his schoolwork transformed with the use of a special software programme that works with him to improve his spelling and grammar. Computers with web access are an intrinsic part of young people's lives, yet for Helen they also pose undefined dangers.
"There is so much out there on the internet and it's hard for a parent to monitor what children are exposed to," she says. "It's easy for kids to come across porn, whether they're looking for it or not. When their friends recommend a pornographic website, it's tempting for them to take a look. But, what then? I don't want to be a control freak. I want to show my boys that I trust them. It's just that the porn out there is truly awful, and it's upsetting to think about my boys coming into contact with it, even though it's an inevitable rite of passage."
While Helen wrestles over the balance between the benefits of free use of the internet on the one hand and overseeing her sons' activities on the other, Ann, the mother of 13-year-old Tom, gives primary weight to her role as protector. "As a mum I want to keep him safe," she says. "It's scary to think his innocence could be stolen away in the safety of his own room. I keep the filters locked and I track the sites he visits. Some of the sites out there are toxic. You can see boys whose heads are filled with that stuff. I want to keep my own boy away from that corruption." Phil, another parent, also makes use of sophisticated internet filters. He wants to protect both his 13-year-old son and his 11-year-old daughter, whose "sociability and curiosity, combined with her very trusting nature, make her vulnerable," he says.
THERE IS EVERY REASON to condemn pornography as an industry when it coerces, drugs or enslaves its workers, but over a period of years, in many different regions, links between pornography users and sex crimes as well as negative attitudes towards women have been investigated, and at no time, in no region, have such links been found. …