Access to pornography has become far easier because of the internet. Images of rape, serious sexual assaults, bestiality and pain and humiliation are there for all to see at just the click of a mouse. It's a problem of significance for many UK families since, according to The Authority for Television on Demand, 473,000 young people aged 6-17 visited an adult website in 2013.
In November 2011, the Office of the Children's Commissioner began a two-year Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups (CSEGG). It appointed Middlesex's Dr Miranda Horvath who assembled a team and became lead investigator on a rapid evidence assessment of the effects that access and exposure to pornography have on children and young people, heading up a team which included colleagues from three other universities.
It was intense work. In just a three-month timeframe they reviewed 30 years worth of international evidence, identifying 41,000 articles, and included 276 in the final systematic review.
"Professionals were coming across repeated reports in police case files and concerns were being raised about pornography. There were examples of young men who had been arrested for multiple perpetrator rape saying things like "it was just like I was in a porno". Those working in the field were encountering young people where porn was clearly a problem," explains Dr Horvath. "The CSEGG Inquiry needed to ask what do we actually know about the impact of porn on children and young people?"
The report, Basically... Porn is everywhere, found that exposure and access to pornography increased with age and was more prevalent amongst young men and boys, which then influenced their attitudes to pornography and behaviours. Access and exposure affected their sexual beliefs and were linked to engagement in "risky behaviours".
Dr Horvath and her colleagues recommended that the Department for Education ensure that schools delivered effective relationship and sex education, including safe use of the internet.
She explains: "Young people need and are asking for the opportunity to talk about sex and relationships. They are not getting it at the moment. Some studies reported that because they are not getting sex education they are turning to porn and obviously that gives a one dimensional view of sex."
Whilst there remains a huge amount of work to be done investigating the influence of pornography on young people, the impact of the Middlesex research was enormous. "Our work had a direct influence on an ongoing inquiry and was covered across all media. It certainly raised the profile of our department and the university," says Dr Horvath. "In July 2013, the Prime Minister raised the issue of looking at measures to block internet porn. Since we did our report there has been a groundswell of activity within the UK looking at what we should do to educate young people about porn and to protect them from its dangers."
Sue Berelitz, Deputy Children's Commissioner, said: "This report ... makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of this serious and deeply troubling subject, shining a light onto issues that we as a society too often consign to the shadows, being simply too difficult to bring to the light." That, after all, is the value of systematic research of the kind conducted by Horvarth and her team: 'shining a light' on such a vital contemporary issue is perhaps the essential contribution that research can make to our daily lives and, of course, the lives of our children.