Adult websites watched by thousands of children
Adult websites should have to ask users to prove they are over 18, according to new research from the online video regulator.
The Authority for Television On Demand (ATVOD) found up to 6% of children aged 15 or under access adult websites.
The online habits of 45,000 desktop PC and laptop users were monitored for a month, and what the regulator found will startle most parents.
Adult websites were accessed by 3% of primary school children, the study found.
If scaled up nationally, the research suggests 200,000 under-16s had accessed pornographic material - that includes 44,000 primary school children.
Because the study did not include smartphone or tablet use, this is probably a conservative estimate.
Pornography sites registered in the UK must already check users' ages with credit card details or other personal information against a database.
But ATVOD said the majority of adult material accessed by children was hosted by foreign businesses, which it does not regulate.
Atvod chief executive Pete Johnson said: "Significant sums are flowing from UK customers to foreign websites which allow children to access hardcore porn. In 2013, The Times estimated the sum could be £180 million a year.
"Cutting off that flow of funds to services which allow children to view hardcore porn would provide a powerful incentive for porn websites to put in place effective age verification and access control mechanisms in order to restart the flow of funds from the UK."
It proposes that all adult sites request a licence, granted only if they sign up to age verification.
If they do not, credit and debit card services would prevent payments being made to the sites by UK citizens.
"We do not advocate censorship," said ATVOD chair Ruth Evans.
"The Government needs to act urgently with a range of measures to protect children from this content.
"Key among them is legislation to make it possible for the UK payments industry to prevent funds flowing from this country to websites which allow children to access hardcore pornography.”
The call to regulate follows the adoption of an "opt-in" pornography filter by internet service providers last year.
Critics say regulatory solutions do not address the problem.
Ben Yates, who writes for Sex and Censorship, said there are "social, cultural and personal problems that cannot simply be fixed by a limp firewall or law".
"This proposal, along with many other Government backed ideas on stopping children watching porn, simply fails before it begins."
Atvod already forces pornographic websites based in Britain to conduct age checks before users can view explicit photographs or video, by demanding credit card details or verifiable personal information.
But the regulator says the majority of online pornography is downloaded from businesses based overseas, which are beyond its control.
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