Sunday 25 August 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Pornography didn't kill Ana - but it needs to be controlled'

We probably laughed when our parents attempted to tell us about sex - but are we really any better, wonders Dr Ciara Kelly

'Porn is viewed widely in darkened pre-pubescent and teenage bedrooms around this country. The average age to start watching porn here now is 13' (stock photo)
'Porn is viewed widely in darkened pre-pubescent and teenage bedrooms around this country. The average age to start watching porn here now is 13' (stock photo)

The desperately sad and shocking murder of Ana Kriegel left most people reeling. Not only was a beautiful 14-year-old girl sexually assaulted and brutally killed, but those convicted of this heinous crime were also children. A pair of 13-year-old boys.

It is in many ways more than we can get our heads around. We may know the how, but we are still searching for the why.

A lot of us have looked for answers, for ways to explain how this could be. How children - whom we instinctively believe shouldn't be capable of this - could carry out such a violent, vicious act.

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Much has been made of the pornography on the mobile phone of Boy A. Some 12,000 images. Some of it quite dark. The internet can take you to terrible places.

The Taoiseach came out in the wake of the trial and said we need to do more to prevent children from viewing such material - they're coincidently attempting and largely failing to bring in porn restrictions in the UK. And our Government is now considering what we can do here. But do something we must.

I don't think anyone can say porn caused this murder because, depressingly, so many kids have seen porn and never go on to do anything like this. But it's still deeply concerning what watching porn might do by way of desensitising young minds to casual violence against women. Also, consuming violent porn may condition fledgling sexual appetites to associate violence with sexual gratification.

We used to just accept children couldn't see certain movies as they were unsuitable for their age because of violence, sex or bad language. Those movies - which have nothing on porn, in terms of unsuitability - remain restricted for children. Yet as a rite of passage for kids, often as young as Holy Communion age, we give them the means to view porn on a daily basis: the unsupervised smartphone. And that is why psychologists say you should give your children a phone at the age you're happy for them to view porn - because that is one of the first things they will do.

Modern parents are afraid of the wrong things. We won't let our kids walk to the school up the road, alone. But we allow them unfettered access to the darkest, seediest places imaginable - on the net.

Porn is viewed widely in darkened pre-pubescent and teenage bedrooms around this country. The average age to start watching porn here now is 13, but many children and children's charities say porn is discussed among kids in primary schools from third or fourth class. Age nine or 10. We are afraid of the wrong things.

The tech giants Twitter and Facebook were called to account over their actions in this case. Not because of allowing children to view dangerous material, but because Boy A and Boy B were identified on their platforms following the verdict - in breach of the law of the land, which insists on the boys' anonymity.

This was a welcome intervention. It is long past time we stopped treating the internet like it's another world where different rules apply. The internet is part of the fabric of our lives and should be subject to the same laws and regulations society has seen fit to impose in the non-virtual world. The only difference is, it's harder to police. That is a problem of technology and enforcement: it should not make the internet exempt.

An under-age porn ban or block may be unworkable - but we need to do something. Young minds with no experience shouldn't be introduced to sex in a way that objectifies and dehumanises those involved. Sex without any emotional connection is at odds with what we teach our primary school children about empathy and kindness. It gives them confusing mixed messages.

There was a lot of comment online denying that porn had any kind of a role in this case, comparing it to previous generations blaming rock music for the disaffected youth of the time. Comparing heavy metal music or a bit of head banging to the impact of watching hard-core porn is ludicrous.

But adults need to be wary of allowing what is OK for them to be OK for children. Knock yourself out watching porn if you want - but children, of an age where the understanding of sex and relationships is at a basic level, should not be viewing it. They have no experience to contextualise sex. And if the only insight into sex they have is based on pornography, make no mistake, it will colour their expectations.

Lastly, here's an interesting thought; the people denying porn could have a malign influence were, in many cases, the same people I've seen suggesting that right-wing views should be de-platformed. Because right-wing rhetoric is too dangerous for people to be exposed to. Are they really saying some political opinions are so pernicious and insidious we should all be protected from them - but violent porn has no effect at all?

Either it is possible to exert a malign influence on people or it's not. And if we accept it is possible, then I'd suggest there's probably more than one bad influence out there. It simply isn't good enough to allow a liberal bias - which I am guilty of myself, though not when it comes to sexualising children - to lead us to believe that only things you don't like can affect people adversely.

It's a matter of urgency now that parents, schools and legislators around the country step up and have very uncomfortable conversations with ourselves and with our children. We laugh at how bad our parents' generation was at equipping us for sexual relationships when we were young. I'm inclined to wonder if we're really doing a much better job ourselves.


Ciara presents 'Lunchtime Live' on Newstalk weekdays FM 12-2

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