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Hong Kong can learn from Britain in protecting children from online porn

Hong Kong can learn from Britain in protecting children from online porn

Exposure to online porn, including on social media, is having a negative effect on children. Britain’s Online Safety Bill is pushing for tougher laws yet Hong Kong’s cybercrime subcommittee did not even include online pornography in its preliminary report.
In January 2019, the Law Reform Commission established its subcommittee on cybercrime. Chaired by senior counsel Derek Chan Ching-lung, it is reviewing legislation and considering how it can be strengthened. If, as many hope, it is prioritising the protection of children from online pornography, it can learn much from Britain’s experiences.

In January this year, the children’s commissioner for England and Wales, Rachel de Souza, reported that young people were frequently exposed to violent pornography, depicting coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sexual activities, with many having encountered violent pornography before their 18th birthday.

She also revealed that those who used pornography frequently were the most likely to indulge in physically aggressive sexual behaviour. Pornography was far from confined to adult sites, she disclosed, with Twitter the online platform where young people were most likely to have seen it.

In February, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation concluded that, if violence against girls and women is to be combated, violent and abusive online pornography must be tackled, with age-verification techniques being key.

In March, Dignify, a sexual abuse charity, reported that, of the 4,000 children aged between 14 and 18 it surveyed, 22 per cent had viewed pornography on multiple occasions, with one in five admitting to having a porn habit, and one in 10 feeling addicted. One head teacher called the impact of violent pornography on her pupils severe, with her school using specialised training techniques to respond to a big increase in sexual abuse cases.

As Dignify’s CEO, Helen Roberts, acknowledges, it is “impossible to tackle the embedded behaviours of sexual harassment [in schools] without talking about the harmful impact pornography is having on children and young people”.


In the House of Lords, Baroness Anne Jenkin is campaigning for tougher child protection laws and, by using mandatory age certificates, she wants to stop videos being viewed by children on their mobile phones, which she calls “porn in your pocket”.

Whereas pornography causes the objectification of girls, Jenkin considers that videos depicting extreme violence, including strangulation and sodomy, are behind a rise in body dysmorphia. The number of girls feeling uncomfortable in their bodies is increasing, with teenagers being pressured into activities they “absolutely do not enjoy”.

Although the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) classifies pornography for distribution and is legally required to consider potential harm, there is no equivalent protection on the internet.

The Online Safety Bill is currently before parliament, and it recognises that the regulation of pornography needs to be consistent between the online and offline spheres, with on-demand pornography platforms facing the same offline standards. It requires legal pornography sites to ensure that children cannot access them, while also protecting them from pornography on social media sites and search engines.

Jenkin and her fellow campaigners are, moreover, seeking to strengthen the bill by ensuring that mandatory age-verification techniques are accurate, and they have tabled amendments to ensure that systems do not just estimate age, but identify it to the day. To close possible loopholes, they also want stringent controls covering all pornography, extreme or moderate, wherever found.

As BBFC’s president Natasha Kaplinsky explains: “This is about the regulation of appalling content that eroticises rape and the violent abuse of women, or which promotes an interest in abusive relationships.”

While the impact of pornography in Hong Kong is not as well documented as in Britain, it is no less dangerous. In 2021, a survey of 989 people by the Hong Kong Association of Sexuality Educators, Researchers and Therapists found that, whereas 62 per cent started looking at pornography when they were aged 10 to 15, about 15 per cent encountered it before they were nine years old.

Of those who watched pornography while aged 10 to 19, almost 30 per cent of those surveyed had at least once desired to have sexual contact with children or teenagers, and about 11 per cent admitted to having taking action to enact their urges. Some respondents frankly admitted associating sexual activity with violence.

Britain’s experiences are clearly instructive, and can inform the Hong Kong cybercrime subcommittee’s work. It has been deliberating for 52 months, and, as its preliminary consultation paper last year did not consider online pornography, all eyes are now on its finalised report. If it throws its weight behind vigorous child protections, the government will hopefully conclude that the necessary legislation must be fast-tracked.
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