Thoughts on the UK’s debate about online porn

Britain has been having a heated debate about children’s exposure to online pornography, a debate in which even Prime Minister Cameron is participating (see The Guardian). We’ve had our national-level discussions about children’s exposure to adult content on this side of the Atlantic too. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the “decency”-protecting part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act on constitutional grounds. In 2002, we had our first national task force on child online safety, led by the National Research Council and former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. It issued the milestone “Thornburgh report,” officially titled “Youth, Pornography & the Internet,” with its now-famous swimming pool analogy: “Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim,” the Thornburgh task force wrote in its report.

That was similar to what Britain’s own education watchdog, Ofsted, reported when it released its 2010 study on filtering in schools: that filters work better when less restrictive and blended with teaching students how to “take responsibility themselves for using new technologies safely” (I quoted the BBC’s coverage in my post on that). But I’m not seeing this cited in British news coverage of the current debate. I wonder if we over here are just as likely to forget the research in times of high emotion.

Does Britain need a task force?

EU Kids Online director and psychology professor Sonia Livingstone, whose research is being cited a lot by tabloids and other “debaters,” says she’s worried about what policies these citers of her work will justify and suggests the problem be given to a “trusted body” already dealing with the issue in other media – such as the UK’s film ratings board or communications regulator Ofcom – because, she writes, “we need strategies that allow for the complexity of the situation, and that’s difficult in a heated debate with strong views on all sides.” We have certainly found that to be true in our society, for example when the highly flawed “Delete Online Predators Act” was drafted in the middle of our predator panic and a mid-term election year, never making it to the Senate before Congress went home for the holidays. The legislation, my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid pointed out, was more about “deleting” social networking from schools and – as social media scholars Henry Jenkins and danah boyd pointed out in 2006 – was so broadly worded that it would’ve blocked a lot more than social network sites at school. It wasn’t about pornography, but it was about the tech issue that consumed an unusual amount of societal attention at the time and led to the creation of the next national task force, at the Berkman Center at Harvard University (more on that in a moment).

“Suppose, for the sake of argument, that MySpace critics are correct and that MySpace is, in fact, exposing large numbers of teens to high-risk situations,” said Dr. Jenkins, referring to what DOPA was somehow supposed to address, “then shouldn’t the role of educational institutions be to help those teens understand those risks and develop strategies for dealing with them?” he asked. “Wouldn’t we be better off having teens engage with MySpace in the context of supervision from knowledgeable and informed adults?” His conclusion: “The proposed federal legislation does nothing to help kids confront the challenges of interacting with online social communities; rather, it allows teachers and librarians to abdicate their responsibility to educate young people about what is becoming a significant aspect of their everyday lives.” His call for guided use of social media rather than the banning of it prefigured Ofsted’s findings four years later. In the schools it rated “outstanding” in online safety practices, the Internet was not “locked down,” and “pupils were helped, from a very early age, to assess the risk of accessing sites,” Ofsted reported.

Factor in young people’s context & views

Wherever Britain’s debate goes and if it’s contagious (we can be sure Russia‘s watching because of a filtering law soon to take effect there), I hope policymakers at both household and national levels will have the good sense to push past the viscerally fearful feelings headlines are designed to fuel and work thoughtfully with as well as for young Net users themselves, instead of viewing them as the undifferentiated mass of potential victims they are consistently, thoughtlessly portrayed to be. For example, “children living in disadvantaged or vulnerable circumstances may be ill-served by ‘opt-in’ or even ‘active choice’ solutions,” Livingstone points out, referring to some requirements of Internet service providers being considered by the UK government.

Interestingly, in the US, children’s exposure to online pornography decreased 12% between 2000 and 2010, according to a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last December (see this).

But the degree of safety a child experiences depends greatly on the child and his or her context. As the Berkman task force (the one that followed the Thornburgh one I mentioned above) pointed out in its 2009 report, “Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies,” a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any technology the child uses (or, I’d add, any law requiring it). Youth are not all equally at risk. And really, now that we’re all seeing how much the Internet mirrors so much of human life, there’s a spectrum of risk online, just as offline, suggesting the need for a taxonomy of online safety, from physical and psychological safety to safety of identity, data, and physical property (discussed in our “Online Safety 3.0“). The Berkman task force’s great contribution was a comprehensive review of the youth online risk research through the year it met (2008).

Risk and harm 2 different things

But take away context and psychology for a moment and just consider the notion of risk. Based on EU Kids Online’s surveys of families in 25 countries, Sonia Livingstone offers two insights that I think would be helpful to parents as well as debaters in any public discussion about youth risk online:

* “‘Risk’ is not the same as ‘harm’: Seeing pornography online may be harmful to children but it may not. It depends on the nature of the images and on the personal circumstances of the child. The minority of vulnerable children may be more at risk of harm from online pornography. Rather more may be more at risk of harm from pornography when it is abusive or degrading to women (or men). But conclusive evidence will always be lacking since we cannot ethically expose a random selection of children to pornography and monitor the outcomes for scientific purposes.
* “Risk may have positive as well as negative outcomes. For many children, some exposure to some risk is necessary to build resilience. We cannot wrap our children in cotton wool and protect them from the world forever, and we must allow our teenagers to explore their sexuality away from our often-disapproving gaze. But for some children, the same exposure may be harmful – depending on lots of factors, and this contingency – where much depends on the child, the online content, and the circumstances – cannot be avoided.”


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