December 10, 2012

Won’t somebody think of the children

The Herald warns us

More than four in ten UK parents say that their children have been exposed to internet porn, an official survey reveals.

In the fifth paragraph we find

The Daily Mail is campaigning for an automatic block on online porn to protect children

which should make any reader sceptical about the numbers.  This is a scare story from a foreign source notorious for its creative use of numbers and its obsession with sex, and a story where they actually admit they are lobbying. It’s bad enough getting science stories from the Daily Mail; this sort of thing really suggests a news shortage.

We don’t get told what actual questions were asked, how the sample was gathered, or any of the other basic survey details.  More importantly, we don’t even get told anything about the age range of the children, which makes a big difference in this case.  We do learn

Almost a third say their sons or daughters have received sexually explicit emails or texts and a quarter say they have been bullied online or on their phones.

Neither of these issues would be affected by the proposed internet filtering, and both are very different from internet porn in that they are almost exclusively between kids who know each other in real life.

Perhaps the journalists are too young to know that porn existed before the Internet, and teenagers were occasionally exposed to it. You can get a more useful perspective from danah boyd and from a report from Harvard’s cyberlaw clinic that contains actual research.



Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar

    It also doesn’t seem to say whether spam counts towards “sexually explicit email”. On the one hand, much of it _is_ sexually explicit, and I’d hardly think the Daily Mail would neglect such an obvious way of enhancing the numbers. On the other hand, if spam does count, how could the proportion be as low as 1/3?

    5 years ago

    • avatar
      Rachel Cunliffe

      I was just wondering about spam too, Cosma!

      5 years ago

      • avatar
        Thomas Lumley

        It could be a matter of filtering — I just went and looked at my gmail spam folder, and it’s mostly phishing, mailing lists I didn’t sign up for, and companies selling lab equipment.

        If spam is mostly sexually explicit, it’s being filtered reasonably effectively before it gets through to me.

        5 years ago

        • avatar

          This inspired me to look at the 56 spam e-mails I’ve gotten in the last week at my gmail address. I count 1/2 sexual, about 1/3 phishing, and about 1/6 fake journals or conferences. Perhaps this just reflect an intrinsic lack of dignity on my part.

          5 years ago

  • avatar
    Simon Moyes

    The original article is at which states the their source as: “The frightening insight is contained in a round-up of responses to a Department for Education consultation on parental internet controls obtained by this paper.” and goes on to state: “However, in total, just one in six of the 3,509 respondents – most of whom were not parents – supported the full opt-in solution.
    Two-thirds of the respondents were from just one pressure group called the Open Rights Group, which is against default filters to block net porn.”

    5 years ago