Last week my son told me he had watched something horrible online. Something sexual where the young women involved seemed coerced into an act that was brutal and disgusting, not just to an uninitiated 11-year-old, prone to anxiety, but to anyone with a shred of humanity. Something that was instantly viewable at the touch of a smartphone button. Something I now know many have already seen.

He watched it because one of his new friends told him he should - because it was "funny". He is finding it hard to make friends at his new secondary school and wanted to fit in. He didn't know what he was going to see.

I know this because, from that particular day, I noticed my son becoming withdrawn. He seemed sullen and easily upset. I knew something was wrong and asked several times if he was OK. Clearly he wasn't.

During a family walk a few days later, we talked about school, how his life was changing and how he and his best friend had grown apart. Then, that evening, as I was bidding him and his brother goodnight, he said he needed to talk. So we went into my bedroom and he told me everything. He said he had been horrified watching a short video online but was unable to stop thinking about it. He told me he couldn't "unsee" it, and how he felt his childhood was effectively over. He had not told me anything as he thought I'd be angry with him.


So I'm left cuddling my son, who is strung between childhood and adolescence. He tells me that everything is moving too fast. We talk about his observation that you can't "unsee" stuff. We talk about how you can't go backwards. And we talk about the importance of moving forward. I tell him how he needs to grow older so that the world can have a great man in their midst.

Then we talk about the porn industry and how often it portrays women as passive beings. We talk about how women in the video he saw are real people, forced into very unpleasant situations - perhaps mums and sisters, certainly daughters - and we talk about how very far from "funny" videos like these really are. We also talk about how sometimes women choose to go into the sex industry and that when the work is on their terms, that's OK.

We talk about why people might access porn. That being curious is completely natural. We talk about the difference between what he watched that was brutal and violent and something that the majority of people might find titillating.

I am looking at this through the eyes of my 11-year-old. He can see that there are gradations of porn. Some of it, though an unrealistic view of sex between two consenting adults, is bearable and allows you to retain a basic positive belief in the world. But then there is the degrading, shockingly violent porn that showed him a dark underbelly of an online world that until that moment was largely populated by Minecraft and Harry Potter. Faced with this hideous new information, he simply doesn't know where to file it.

After watching the video, he changed his settings on his phone to strict. He was the last in his year to get a phone. I held out giving him one, not due to fear of him having access to porn, but because I question why someone his age needs a phone.

A month ago, however, I caved in to his peer pressure. I want him, for his sake, to fit in where he can.

As a freelance theatre director and writer, I work with more than 100 kids every week. I nurture their confidence and communication skills, I persuade some to speak louder and more clearly. And yet, while I'm working with these young people, my own son is dealing with the fallout alone. The anger I have felt since finding out tells me that it's time I used my experience to do something about this new technological phenomenon.

I use the internet all the time. I am very active on social media. I've seen porn - most of us have. But I recognise that this time the internet has crept up and slapped me right in the face.


This week, one of this country's major teaching unions published research suggesting that 90 per cent of eight to 16-year-olds had at some stage accessed pornography on the internet - many without meaning to - and asked for training in how to deliver lessons warning of the dangers of pornography. This is not about censorship but education. It's about having frank discussions about the content that our generation has created and giving it a context for the younger generations who are consuming and replicating it.

Children have always found ways to discover the world on their own and that's essential and it's important that adults don't interfere with that discovery and self-education. But it's our adult world that is increasingly seeping into their childhood, at the touch of a button. And when the mark of fitting in with your mates becomes watching a "funny" video, which is essentially violent porn that changes your world in an instant, then I think we, as a society, need to reassess things.

Adult content: the facts

Internet pornography is now so common that the average child is 11 years old when they see their first image, according to recent research. And some children first stumble across porn as young as eight, the study found.

Hundreds of new porn sites go live every day, 25 per cent of internet searches are for pornographic content and on average almost 30,000 people are looking at porn at any given second. According to the report unveiled by teachers last week, children are regularly amongst them. An investigation by the London School of Economics found that 90 per cent of youngsters between eight and 16 have accessed porn online, many without meaning to find it and most while doing their homework.

Professionals from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers then pleaded for support in educating pupils to the dangers of viewing internet pornography. In the same week, parents told a parliamentary inquiry that they feel powerless to intervene in their children's internet habits, hamstrung by technological advances that mean kids can access free pornographic material at the touch of a button.