The UK video-on-demand regulator, ATVOD, has announced a conference on child protection, to be held in London on 12th December. In an open letter, below, we raise concerns with the nature of the conference and some of the speakers to be featured. (UPDATE: a response was received on 19th November, and has been appended to the end of this post).
18 November 2013
Open letter to: Julia Hornle, ATVOD board member
Cc: Sue Berelowitz – Deputy Children’s Commissioner
I am writing with regard to the ATVOD-organised child protection conference taking place in London on 12th December. I am informed that you selected the conference speakers. I write on behalf of a number of people who are greatly concerned that the conference line-up is not altogether suitable for an event whose purported goal is to determine what best can be done to protect British children.
The concerns are twofold: first, the lack of expertise related to the effects of content on viewers, including children and teenagers, and second the inclusion of two speakers whose beliefs seem out of place at a conference dedicated to child protection.
On the first point: How children and teenagers are affected by what they see online is widely debated. A great deal of research has been done over several decades, and a good deal has yet to be done. There is still however no conclusive evidence to support how harm, if any, is done by sexual, violent, or other material and it would therefore seem premature to suggest remedies until the existence and nature of any problem is properly understood.
For this reason, it is puzzling that the conference speaker list includes no expertise on this matter, and yet plenty of expertise does exist. It would seem suitable to include a child psychologist, or somebody who has directly tried to research the effects of viewing such material.
A number of suitable individuals come to mind, but we might suggest:
Dr Guy Cumberbatch is a chartered psychologist who has been commissioned previously by Ofcom to conduct research on this very subject area. It would seem sensible that the conference should be informed by an expert in child psychology before coming to any conclusions.
Dr Clarissa Smith is Professor of Sexual Cultures at Sunderland University, and (along with colleagues) is conducting the most exhaustive study to date into the effects of pornography on its users.
Sharon Girling is a former senior Police officer with national responsibility, now an independent consultant, and probably the UK’s leading authority on online child abuse imagery, and protecting abused children who are identified from such imagery.
It may be dangerous to rush towards policy-making without input, at such a critical event, from people such as the above. As history shows, rashly drafted laws and regulations might disrupt existing child protection activities, and thus have the reverse effect to that originally intended.
On the second point: we note with concern the inclusion of the following two speakers:
Paula Hall is billed as Chair of the Association for the Treatment of Sex Addiction and Compulsivity. However, there is widespread skepticism among mental health professionals that “sex addiction” is even a genuine condition, or whether it simply stigmatises normal sexual response. Although “hypersexuality” was previously accepted as a psychiatric condition (as once was homosexuality), it has now been removed from the most recent manual of psychiatry, DSM-V. It is worrying that you consider what many believe to be quack psychiatry to be relevant to this discussion.
Julia Long is a spokesperson for the morality group Object, which campaigns against all forms of sexual expression, whether consumed by children or adults. Object frequently attempt to link adult material to sexual violence, although they have no evidence to back this point of view. They have claimed (without evidential foundation) that adults are harmed by accessing pornography, reading lads’ mags and visiting strip clubs. Again, their inclusion seems incongruous at a conference aimed at protecting children, a subject in which Object and Ms Long herself appear to have no expertise or prior interest.
The anomalies in the conference line-up have led to questions as to whether this event is about child protection or Internet censorship. I look forward to your response, and hope that you can put minds at rest regarding your goals in setting up the conference panels.
Theresa May is Watching You
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UPDATE: the following response was received on 19 November:
Emailed on Behalf of Julia Hornle
Dear Mr Barnett,
Thank you for your letter and suggestions for the joint ATVOD-QMUL conference on 12th December.
We have finalised the composition of the panels and speakers. I’m familiar with the work of the speakers you suggest and have no doubt that they also have interesting contributions to make, perhaps at a different conference. Please let me know if you are organising such an event in the future.