Why Emmerdale is right to tackle sexual assault and the effect internet porn can have on our teens

The ITV soap was doing its duty when it showed the actions of troubled 14-year-old Lachlan White, says David Brown

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“Can I get a tablet?”

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“My friends have got iPhones – could I have one?”

They’re questions asked a lot in our house at the moment and, so far, the answer I’ve given to my kids is “no”. It’s not down to me being an ogre or a skinflint – though my harrumphing boys may disagree – but because I feel that if you give children an iPad, then you’re basically handing them the world in all its graphic HD grisliness.

And it seems I’m not alone in worrying about kids’ online access. ITV’s Emmerdale is currently exploring how the internet affects the behaviour of impressionable teenagers with a brave storyline that has stirred up a certain amount of controversy. Computer-obsessed 14-year-old Lachlan White (seen only recently downloading porn to a laptop) sexually assaulted Alicia Metcalfe in scenes broadcast last month, while next week’s episodes will take a further look at how the sites he visits have influenced his outlook on life.

Now, it would be foolish to suggest that every teen in 2015 that takes a look at online porn is going to become a sexual predator. But the instant availability of adult material on tablets and smartphones really does mark the modern age out from, say, playgrounds of the 1980s where pictures of Samantha Fox, tattered top-shelf mags and grainy VHS tapes were my only real sources of smut.

“The expectations on teenagers today are terrifying,” says Emmerdale series producer Kate Oates, who conceived Lachlan and Alicia’s story. “They can be in the position where they’ve never had a relationship themselves and yet they’ve seen thousands of people have sex on the internet. It completely shapes the way they approach each other and behave.”

The ready access that the young have to hardcore material is something that is also a concern to actress Natalie Anderson, who plays Alicia, one of the characters at the centre of the show’s plotline.

“My two-year-old son knows how to work an iPad,” she says. “He’s on CBeebies, but if he’s playing around online, who knows what might accidentally come up? That’s what I find worrying. With the Emmerdale storyline, we’ve seen Lachlan glued to his computer but, as a parent, what can you do? You can’t keep tabs on your children all the time. But it’s different today compared to what it was like for me as a teenager. I didn’t even have a mobile phone, but my nine-year-old sister has got an iPod Touch, so she can access the internet.”

So the supply of adult content online must be a worry? “Yes, I find it scary. And what I also find dangerous is this feeling that companies aren’t willing to take responsibility for the content that they’re putting up because they know it will make a lot of money. I find it disturbing, for instance, that Fifty Shades of Grey was this highly anticipated film – if a nine-year-old wants to find out what everyone’s talking about, then they can just use their tablet and type it in. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

And let’s not pretend that our children are living in blissful ignorance. Only last week, we had an 11-year-old boy banned from taking part in his school’s World Book Day celebrations for turning up dressed as Christian Grey (complete with bondage cable ties and an eye mask).

Then there was the study published last year by mental health charity Young Minds which suggested that a third of 11- to 14-year-olds had watched porn on a mobile device, a figure that rose to a half of all 15- to 17-year-olds. When asked whether watching porn had affected their relationships, 13 per cent answered “definitely”. A further 12 per cent answered “occasionally” and 14 per cent said that their relationship was “slightly affected”.

But what hits home is the fact that porn is no longer something that has to be sought out at the newsagents’ or on videotapes. “It’s something teenagers are always going to encounter, but never like this,” said Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at Young Minds, back in February 2014. “Anyone can do it, anywhere, any time.”

It’s a fact of life that Kate Oates was keen to explore on Emmerdale, especially when it came to how teenagers’ online experiences could influence their attitude towards sex. “I saw a documentary that looked at how young people today are affected by what they see online and I thought it was a really interesting subject and one that soaps hadn’t touched before.

“So I wanted to talk about it on Emmerdale because we do have a great reach and I think it’s important to open that dialogue up. It’s obviously a challenging thing to talk about at 7pm. And the nature of the assault is a challenging thing to show in that timeslot too. So it certainly wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I’m glad that we’ve been able to approach it.”

I, for one, am also glad. Nearly 50 viewers may have complained to Ofcom that the pivotal scene of assault was shown before the watershed. But surely one of the jobs of soap is to articulate issues of concern to its viewers? Shy away from contentious, sensitive subjects and these shows become anaemic nonentities. By tackling such a thorny topic, Emmerdale is spotlighting a very current worry and doing its duty as social drama. And hopefully parents will feel compelled to prise kids away from their screens as a result.

You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of Emmerdale below.

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And visit our dedicated Emmerdale page for the latest news, interviews and gossip.