As we reported yesterday, Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín has introduced a bill to the Dáil which seeks to prevent the distribution of pornography to children by media companies, including internet service providers. It’s a worthy goal. Here he is, explaining it in more detail:

As Tóibín himself noted on Newstalk yesterday morning, 60% of Irish boys encounter hardcore porn before the age of thirteen. That figure likely rises to close to 100% by the age of 18. It’s simply a fact of life, these days, that the average young person will have seen video of unusual and extreme sexual acts long before they have their own first sexual experiences.

What impact is this having on young people? Nobody really knows, is the answer, because it’s such a new phenomenon, and one which has only really come to pass over the past decade. But it’s not hard to imagine that young people, who often suffer from body image issues, and anxiety about dating and relationships, are being indoctrinated with massively unrealistic expectations about sex and sexuality, and that this may be contributing to insecurity, stress, and depression. Given that it’s not a subject people often discuss frankly with parents or teachers, it’s also likely that a lot of this suffering is happening in silence.

And it’s not just boys, either. The depiction of sex – especially as it pertains to the role of the female partner – in pornography is often so twisted and unrealistic that it’s not hard to imagine that for many young girls, the things expected of them, and depicted as normal, in their first romantic relationships, are a huge source of discomfort, stress, and shame.

One of the most popular videos on Pornhub, for example, with over 113 million views (for context, Donald Trump has 87.9 million twitter folllowers) is entitled “Kimmy Granger likes it rough”. The website includes ten thousand videos tagged to include “fisting”, sixty-four thousand tagged to involve “rough sex”, and twenty thousand videos involving “gangbangs”. And that is only on one single website. Given that all of these videos involve women moaning in apparent (though often faked) pleasure, it is not hard to imagine how a young boy could get the wrong idea about what a young girl might like to do – or worse, what she should do, if she really likes him.

So Tóibín’s bill is certainly directed at a real problem. But it is also likely to fall short of solving it, by itself, even assuming that it was to pass into law. It is not intended as a criticism to point out the flaws with the bill – it is just that there’s no point pretending that legislation alone can solve this problem.

For one thing, it seems to place an unreasonable burden on media companies, for the simple reason that media companies don’t deal with children as it is. Not one media company in the world has children as their customers. Every single internet contract, every single phone contract, and every single television contract is between a company, and an adult human being. An adult rings up, orders the service, and the company provides it. You would not think to blame, for example, knife manufacturers if there was an outbreak of children stabbing their siblings in the home. You would, in that scenario, blame the parents for allowing the children access to the knives.

Some media companies go to great lengths already to give parents the tools they need to prevent their children accessing inappropriate material. Sky, for example, has a pin protection system where huge swathes of its programming is hidden behind a pin number provided to the person who pays the bills. This can be used to block access not only to pornography, but to violence, 18-rated movies, and so on.

In a similar vein, many internet providers have similar protections, preventing children from accessing certain websites without a password.

The simple fact is that many parents don’t avail of these systems. Nearly all of the time, if your child is looking at pornhub, or some other website, it’s more your fault than it is the fault of the service provider.

The other problem is that it’s useless to pretend that pornography is limited to Pornhub or other specialised sites. Pornographic clips can easily be circulated on a whole series of messaging apps – from facebook messenger, to whatsapp, to snapchat, and so on. It’s very hard to criminalise a media company for not having software that can immediately recognise that a clip is pornographic and also recognise that the recipient is underage. This is especially true, for example, in group chats, which many children are participants in.

And because these messaging apps are so widely used by children, even with the best will in the world, the most diligent parent can never be 100% certain that their child, despite doing nothing wrong, won’t receive a pornographic clip right onto their phone from a school friend, or someone else, despite never having sought it out.

Incidentally, some people propose as a blanket solution to this problem to simply ban all pornography altogether, in the same way, for example, that we ban child pornography. But this is a pipe dream. Even if it were not highly unlikely to win political support, and even if there were not free speech concerns, and even if it were not the case that you would have to get every country in the world to do so at the same time, a ban would likely fail. There are simply too many producers, and too many customers, and too many online channels of distribution, for even the most totalitarian society in the world to ban pornography and succeed, without also banning, in effect, the internet altogether. It’s a pipe dream, not a realistic solution.

And so when it comes to protecting children, it is very easy to make the big media companies, and the big porn producers, the villains. In many respects, they are villains. Further moves to regulate them are good, and Aontú should be commended for the effort. The bill they have proposed should absolutely be passed.

But the bigger issue here is that many parents still seem to imagine that their children, and especially their sons, can be uniquely insulated from this stuff, and that there never needs to be an awkward conversation about it. For many of us, growing up, sex education was either constrained to the basic facts about biology, or limited to a very general conversation about respect. Nobody ever had to tell us, as young men, that girls might not be as eager to participate in anal sex as they are in pornography. Few young women had to be told, for example, that they are allowed to decline a “facial” if they don’t like the idea.

These are difficult and challenging conversations, which no child wants to have with their parents, and vice versa. Even in the event that you are the lucky parent who manages to shield your child from pornography entirely, that young person is still going to leave the nest one day and enter a world where almost everyone they encounter will not have been shielded from it. The world has changed dramatically in this area, and parenting needs to change, and these conversations need to become more frank, alongside it.

The Aontú bill will not, and can not, solve this problem by itself. Any effort to put more pressure on those responsible for sharing this material is welcome, of course, but ultimately, there’s no getting around it: You have to talk to your child about porn, you have to learn about the things they’re likely to encounter, and you have to build a relationship that is open and trusting enough that they’re willing to ask you shocking questions, and get honest and compassionate answers. There’s no other way, no matter how much we might wish that there was.