"Basically... porn is everywhere," says a new report from the Children's Commissioner. We try to find out just how much – and what the information we do have says about the UK's habits
• Read analysis of the report from Alexandra Topping
• More data journalism and data visualisations from the Guardian
Unsurprisingly, on the Datablog we often write articles about data when we have data. But some topics, like pornography, aren't conducive to statistical analysis, no matter how important many claim they are.
Despite these challenges, a report released today has sought to assess children and young people's exposure to pornography and understand its impact. Led by Middlesex University and commissioned by the Children's Commissioner, this was a rapid evidence assessment - completed in the space of just three months as part of a much larger ongoing inquiry into child sexual exploitation.
The report found that a "significant proportion of children and young people are exposed to or access pornography", and that this is linked to "unrealistic attitudes about sex" as well as "less progressive gender role attitudes (e.g. male dominance and female submission)".
Though the report makes these and other important conclusions, you'll notice that numbers are conspicuously absent in its language. One reason is that its findings were not based on primary research but a literature review that began with 41,000 identified sources and concluded by using 276 of those that were deemed relevant.
Several of the articles in the references are however quite dated - some published as far back as 1980. That doesn't necessarily mean that the findings are irrelevant. Rather, it shows just how difficult it is to analyse an entertainment activity/hobby/addiction (delete as appropriate) that is as prevalent as it is provocative - or at least we think.
In fact, for a phenomenon that is believed to be so widespread and so regularly features in debates about the state of British society, there is virtually no accurate data on pornography.
In February of this year, I contacted academics that conduct studies on pornography (though many of these look at its impact, rather than its scale) as well as 'industry experts'. One of those was someone working at Erotic Trade Only, which describes itself as "UK's leading adult industry magazine".
I didn't get very far. The industry expert replied "there are no figures, unfortunately, and with the industry continually changing its delivery vehicles and routes to market that is unlikely to change anytime soon".
The academic meanwhile pointed out, "much of what's out there is either self-reported by the industry or by its opponents, neither of which is particularly reliable". That's not even to mention that while a precise definition of 'pornography' remains elusive, so too do efforts to define where the boundaries of its industry stop and where they begin.
So what can be said? Well, like shopping, dating and programme viewing, the proportion of pornography online is growing compared to that which is offline. Maybe then, it's useful to look at some trends on Google. Trends like, for instance, the frequency of porn as a search term which, as the interactive graph below demonstrates, is becoming more common.
This, as the next interactive shows, is a trend which is quite equally spread across the country. England tops the list for online searches, Scotland has 97% the amount England does, Wales 87% and residents of Northern Ireland produce 3/4 the amount of web searches for the term 'porn' that England does.
But since Google Trends doesn't show absolute values, we're still no closer to understanding the scale of porn or its place in British cultural life relative to other trends. Well, what about if we were to use data on the most Googled terms in the UK in 2012 (Euro 2012 tops the list) and compare it to searches for 'porn'?
It appears that even at the height of football madness in June, porn was by far a more interesting topic for those in the UK to type into a search engine. All of which suggests that researchers weren't too inaccurate in titling today's report 'Basically, porn is everywhere'.
Obviously, this approach is far from methodologically watertight. Do you have any suggestions about ways to collect accurate statistics on the prevalence of pornography? Do you know of any reliable sources about its scale in the UK? Share your views, either by posting a comment below or by contacting us via Twitter on @GuardianData or @MonaChalabi.More open data
• Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.orgMona Chalabi
guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds