'We were in tears a lot': Kiwi mum and dad's crusade against porn

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 21 Jun 2020, 11:06AM
Wellington couple Rob Cope and Zareen Sheikh-Cope have made a documentary about the risk to kids of seeing porn, and how parents can keep them safe. (Photo / Supplied)

'We were in tears a lot': Kiwi mum and dad's crusade against porn

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 21 Jun 2020, 11:06AM

Rob Cope has just built a kitchen out of free pallets.

A kitchen made of something usually stuck on the end of a forklift to transport goods wasn't the dream for the Wellington builder and his wife, author and psychology student Zareen Sheikh-Cope.

They'd planned to put a new kitchen in the family home.

Instead, they made a documentary about how easy it is, and how damaging, for kids to watch porn online.

It cost them a new kitchen, and then some.

"We're still in debt to it," Sheikh-Cope says of the couple's self-funded documentary, Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators & How to keep them safe.

"This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's more about, 'Here's the bit we need to do.'"

Need it was. Easy it was not.

"This is such a s*** film to make, ay?" Cope says in the opening moments of the documentary, which canvasses how porn has changed in the online "all the time, for free" age, what that means for kids and young teens exposed to explicit content far beyond their parents' childhood experiences, the ever-present risk of online predators and, ultimately, solutions for rattled mums and dads.

"We were in tears a lot," Cope says of the 18-month project, which was completed during the lockdown and is now streaming on Vimeo On Demand.

"I'm a builder by trade so I don't cry a lot. But I've cried a lot. Now that we know what we know, it's really upsetting whenever I see a kid with a smartphone because I know what they can watch on it. I go to my son's soccer and he's almost 13 and you've got 20 gorgeous young men on the field and you know that 90 per cent of them have smartphones and about 90 per cent of them don't have any filters.

"I really fear for their futures … it's like this massive burden we're carrying and we just want parents to be educated and to know the reality of the world their kids are growing up in."

Survey: One quarter see porn before age 12

What is that world?

According to Our Kids Online, it's a world where a teen's first sexual experience, once "light petting", could now be strangulation of a sexual partner.

And it's a world where, at the tap of a screen or click of a mouse, kids can find themselves in places where predators, sometimes posing as other children, may be lurking under the invisibility cloak of the internet.

It's also a world that's on the radar of authorities, and there have been moves to keep kids safe online - among the most recent the six-week, $1.5 million advertising campaign Keep It Real Online.

The film censor's office, police, Internal Affairs, Ministry of Education and Network for Learning collaborated with Netsafe to put advice, including on pornography and online grooming, on one site, keepitrealonline.govt.nz

Any doubt of its need is promptly put to rest with a flick through the findings of a 2018 survey of 2000 Kiwi teens on how and why they view online porn.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification research project found more than two-thirds of the 14- to 17-year-olds surveyed had been exposed to porn, a quarter before they turned 12.

Sixty-nine per cent had seen violence or aggression and 15 per cent - boys at twice the rate of girls - watched porn at least once a month. One in 10 told the research project they were regular viewers by age 14.

They were using porn "as a learning tool", 73 per cent said, and 20 per cent admitted trying a sexual act they'd seen online.

Ministry of Education figures support the findings - schools blocked 300,000 attempts to access pornographic websites in March last year alone, the ministry's associate deputy secretary Pauline Cleaver told a parliamentary committee.

And the stats of one of the world's most popular porn websites, Pornhub, show a daily spike in usage between 3pm and 5pm.

But the survey also found 71 per cent of those surveyed by the Office of Film and Literature Classification weren't seeking out porn when they first saw it. Two-thirds hadn't talked to a parent or caregiver about porn.

Young people had also told them they wanted restrictions around what they could watch and have access to, Chief Censor David Shanks wrote in the report's introduction.

"Their overwhelming consensus is that porn is not for kids."

'We have totally underestimated the avalanche of porn freely available to our children'

But any regulation of porn's modern home, the internet - a vast, unwieldy tool with no central control and a strong ethos of freedom - is no small task.

A year after surveying teens on their porn habits, the Office of Film and Literature Classification followed up by analysing the top 200 most viewed videos from Pornhub in New Zealand, and their findings - including that 35 per cent showed some non-consensual behaviour and 10 per cent physical aggression - sparked a strong response from Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft.

He regularly heard from counsellors, teachers, youth and community workers about the serious harm being done to young people "learning behaviour that does not model healthy, loving or respectful sexual relationships".

Young people exposed to porn were getting the wrong message about healthy, loving and respectful sexual relationships, Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has said. File photo / John Stone

Young people exposed to porn were getting the wrong message about healthy, loving and respectful sexual relationships, Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has said. File photo / John Stone

Adults had been passive and "abdicated responsibility" for the situation, Becroft added, but his comments also laid bare its challenges.

"We have totally underestimated the avalanche of porn freely available to our children, uncensored and unregulated in New Zealand homes day and night."

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin knows about some of those challenges.

Martin, who is also the Minister for Children, hit her own roadblock when she put together a draft Cabinet paper on potential internet service provider filtering of porn websites, unless those aged over 18 opt in to access them.

But after circulating the paper around her NZ First colleagues, coalition partner Labour and confidence and supply partner the Greens, she says she failed to win support to take it further.

Martin also favours age verification requirements for online porn, a move planned - then abandoned - in the United Kingdom this year.

She knows from her own experience how easy it is for young people to see things they shouldn't - sometimes inadvertently, as was the case for a 10-year-old relative researching one of ancient Egypt's most famous rulers.

"She was studying Cleopatra and, I can tell you now, the imagery that came up - Cleopatra never did that.

"Luckily [my relative's] mum was with her and slammed the machine shut."

'We've taught our kids to google everything'

It's exactly that scenario Cope and Sheikh-Cope were seeking to avoid when the four children they share began asking for electronic devices.

Before any device was placed in small hands, the couple decided to research what their children, now aged between 10 and 15, might be able to find.

What they discovered - that children were being exposed to violent, hardcore porn, and many were engaging with online predators, horrified them, Sheikh-Cope says.

Speaking with other parents brought no comfort.

"We thought, 'Oh my God, we have to do something with this. We can't just have this knowledge to ourselves.'

"But when we spoke to other parents more than 90 per cent didn't have filters in place or weren't aware there was an issue."

Zareen Sheikh-Cope and Rob Cope, pictured with their kids, made the documentary Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators and How to keep them safe after discovering dangers kids face online. Photo / Supplied

Zareen Sheikh-Cope and Rob Cope, pictured with their kids, made the documentary Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators and How to keep them safe after discovering dangers kids face online. Photo / Supplied

One of the biggest challenges for parents is accepting their children, given the chance, will watch porn - she had to overcome the same feelings of denial herself, Sheikh-Cope says.

"I had a moment where I thought, 'It can't be that bad, it must be a certain selection of kids this is happening to, it can't be all kids.'

"But it was very brief … I think it was more that I was afraid because to acknowledge there was a problem on this scale meant I would have to engage with it and, at that time, it frightened me."

The conversations can still be confronting. But they're getting easier.

One of the most recent involved her 10-year-old daughter asking - after being told by schoolmates about a fictional clown raping and killing children - 'How would a man have sex with a boy?'

They had an age-appropriate discussion that answered her daughter's questions, but it could've ended so differently.

"If we didn't have filters on our computer and if we hadn't had these [open] discussions, because we've taught our children to google everything, she would've just come home and googled," Cope says.

"And she would've found it, and that would've scarred her for life."

Predators posing as influencers

But it could never be just about their own kids. For one, their kids will one day date other people's kids.

And all kids need to be protected, Cope says.

Because even though we don't like to think about it, their curiosity about sex is normal, he says.

"That's the main thing from our film. None of these kids are bad, they're just curious and we've given them the ultimate encyclopaedia here, with no filters.

"So anything they're curious about they can find the answer to, and that's why we need to filter and that's why we need to educate, because they'll find every single thing they're curious about, and they won't tell us as parents about it because it's shocking and they feel shame and they're embarrassed, or they don't know what to think."

The early part of the documentary is focused on letting parents know how accessible porn is, much of it told through light-hearted animation - a skill, along with film-making, Cope taught himself by watching YouTube tutorials.

Humour was an important inclusion, especially for older teens - the couple only recommends the documentary for those aged 16 and over - watching with their parents, Cope says.

"We also used a lot of beautiful cinematography, to bring in the beauty mixed with the harsh stories."

And some of those stories are harsh.

Detective Constable Hannah Clayden , of the police covert online investigation unit, told the couple of the grooming of Kiwi kids by online predators.

Sometimes it was men posing as a beautiful woman, sometimes it was gamers offering gaming credits for photos - with increasingly exploitative requests, sometimes followed by threats of blackmail.

Sometimes predators posed as influencers promising to make dreams of fame come true.

"We dealt with a case where a girl of 6 was told to do sexual things to herself, and she did that," Clayden says in Our Kids Online.

"She didn't realise they were sexual, she was just following instructions that an adult told her to do because she thought she was going to get a place in a dance academy, or whatever it was she was auditioning for."

Speaking to porn addiction survivors makes for similarly heavy watching.

"One thing we found, every guy we interviewed who had a porn addiction, it started when they were young," Cope says.

"There's a big difference between an adult seeing porn for the first time and a kid, and the porn of yesteryear, which was just pictures, when now you can get everything you can imagine."

Those interviewed spoke relationship issues and erectile dysfunction, while US and Australian experts told the documentary makers of increasing numbers of child-on-child sexual assaults.

They did not have statistics for New Zealand, Cope says.

But street polls with Wellington teens left them in no doubt sex acts depicted on hardcore porn had been normalised.

Told of a statistic that one in six young men had either choked their partner or ejaculated on her face, one teenage girl, laughing, said she'd experienced both.

"It's normal. It's not normal if you don't do it."

Tech solutions on the way - expert

Despite what some might think, they're not anti-porn. Nor are their efforts driven by any religious belief - they're not religious, the couple says.

They just want porn, as much as possible, "back behind the counter", as it once was.

And, because it can now never be completely hidden, to help other parents trying to protect their kids in a changed world. The documentary includes advice on parental control filters.

The struggle parents face over their kids accessing porn is also familiar to Martin Cocker, chief executive of online safety organisation Netsafe.

"Of all the online safety conversations, the one about pornography is the one parents dread the most."

Parents of kids as young as 10 have come to them for advice, Cocker says.

Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators & How to keep them safe is available to rent on Vimeo on Demand, but its makers are also hoping to find further distributors. Photo / Supplied

Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators & How to keep them safe is available to rent on Vimeo on Demand, but its makers are also hoping to find further distributors. Photo / Supplied

Work was being done in New Zealand to improve the situation, including an Office of Film and Literature Classification-led working party of Netsafe and several government agencies and ministries to investigate the impacts of Kiwis' porn use and coordinate any advice and response.

"There's much being done in New Zealand. There's just a need for the regulation and technology to meet at the same time", Cocker says, referring, in particular, to "rapidly evolving" age verification technology.

"Within a few years, we'll have technology options to manage young people's lives online, including around porn."

Martin's familiar with the evolving tech too. She believes the UK's push for age verification requirements for accessing porn fell over because some of the age verification data was going to be stored.

But an app is currently being developed in New Zealand which provides instant age recognition of faces but holds no data.

"It doesn't say, 'I know who you are.' It just says 'Nuh, you look under the age of 18, off you go.'"

The state has a role to play in protecting Kiwi kids from the harmful effects of online porn, Internal Affairs Minister and Minister for Children Tracey Martin says. File photo / Mark Mitchell

The state has a role to play in protecting Kiwi kids from the harmful effects of online porn, Internal Affairs Minister and Minister for Children Tracey Martin says. File photo / Mark Mitchell

She's ready for Kiwis to step up and take the issue of young people accessing porn more seriously, especially those who argue someone can't be harmed by something they've chosen to view.

"We've got animated porn for goodness sake. We're moving now into virtual pornography where he's got a headset on and they're filming through his eyes as she performs acts for him. So now you could put a headset and be the person this is happening to.

"It's no longer in an abstract, even more so. To try and get my generation to understand this is where it's gone to."

And while it was good to empower parents to talk about porn with their kids, the state had a role too.

"That's just not good enough. Because what we're saying is, 'We're going to leave the internet alone and all you parents are going to have to keep watching out for your kids all the time, from every angle, even in the dark when they're in their rooms on their phones.'

"I mean, come on guys, you can't leave it all to parents."

Sheikh-Cope and Cope agree a collaborative effort is the way forward, one where everybody brings "their little slice of the pie", Sheikh-Cope says.

"Our slice of the pie is the documentary ... to show parents what's actually happening and give them some tools they can use straight away."

"Yeah," Cope says.

"Cos we're just a couple of parents who made a film about our kids watching porn … I like to think of it as a real underdog kind of film.

"Just two parents who saw a film that needed to be made, and just made it."

* Watch Our Kids Online: Porn, Predators & How to keep them safe here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ourkidsonline