New research sheds light on how kids are exploited

An unpublished government study offers insights into what role the Internet really has in child sexual exploitation.
by Larry Magid

 News has recently surfaced about an unpublished government study that suggests that 85 percent of offenders imprisoned for trafficking in online child pornography may have also sexually molested minors. The New York Times recently reported that psychologists from the Federal Bureau of Prisons based their findings on interviews with 155 male inmates who were undergoing voluntary treatments important to point out that this is a small study of imprisoned convicts and not necessarily representative of all people who look at child porn. But even if these numbers turn out to be a bit fuzzy, the implications are astounding.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, whose board I sit on, has long argued that child pornography can be used to “normalize” sexual exploitation of children in a way that makes engaging in sexual relationship with kids somehow seem a bit more OK. Child porn is also used to break down inhibitions in children and, of course, the production of child porn is in itself an act of exploitation both in terms of what the child goes through and the potentially lifelong trauma associated with being displayed in photos and videos.

Nancy Willard, author of “Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens,” says that she has seen reports that “people who engage in this type of abuse are forming online support communities where they justify and rationalize their activities.” Some perpetrators, she says, “are rationalizing their behavior as supporting the rights of children to have sex with adults.”

She also points out that in virtually all cases the children and adults know each other. So, while the Internet plays a major role in the dissemination, distribution and perhaps demand for child pornography, the actual exploitation takes place the old fashioned way – in homes and other physical locations. Sadly, there are many cases where a parent has been arrested for abusing his or her own children.

No matter how you look at it, production, distribution and consumption of child porn harms children. It’s entirely appropriate for law enforcement to crack down on it and it’s equally important for all of us to make sure that it’s not tolerated in our homes, workplaces and communities.

Another source of child pornography is where children and teens are asked to provide sexually explicit photos of themselves. A report in the Journal of Adolescent Health, published July 20, observes that one in 25 youths “reported an online request to send a sexual picture of themselves during the previous year.” The researchers interviewed 1,500 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17. Sixty-five of the youths (4 percent) received such a request, but the good news is that only one youth in that sample complied – that’s 1 out of a total of 1,500 people interviewed. In other words, kids appear to be more cyber-savvy than some adults give them credit for.

Children who do post, e-mail or simply create sexually explicit photos of themselves are technically in violation of child porn laws. I spoke at a religious school in Los Angeles a few years ago right after the teenage daughter of one of the congregation’s leaders had been arrested for posting sexually explicit pictures of herself and her friends on a Web site. I don’t know how that case was resolved but a recent Florida case has resulted in an appellate court upholding child pornography convictions of two teenage lovers for creating and distributing what is technically considered to be child porn.

By a 2-1 vote, the court in February upheld the child porn convictions of a 16-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy who had reportedly taken pictures of themselves engaged in “sexual behavior.” Although neither teen shared the pictures with others, they did e-mail photos to themselves which, technically constitutes distribution.

The court concluded that neither child “had a reasonable expectation that the other would not show the photos to a third party” and pointed out that they “have no reasonable expectation that their relationship will continue and that the photographs will not be shared with others intentionally or unintentionally.”

Although I abhor the notion that these kids would be arrested, tried and convicted for their indiscretions, I do agree with the court’s cautionary remarks. Regardless of age, people should be careful about digital images or anything else that can be stored, posted or forwarded. Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo, found that out earlier this month after photos of her “not acting in a ladylike manner” were anonymously sent to pageant officials. Of course she was over 21 and the pictures, while racy, were not even close to being pornographic. But the matter illustrates how easy it is for “private” digital images to become public.

When it comes to child porn, I think it’s appropriate that the legal system go after adults who knowingly exploit children and put everyone on notice that distributing or even viewing pictures of children having sex is not only illegal but harmful. When it comes to teens, the best medicine is education – they need to understand that even seemingly innocent indiscretions can have long term consequences.

Kids also need to know that they have the power to protect themselves and avoid dangerous or just plain stupid online behaviors. Based on the results of the recent surveys, they appear to be getting that message.


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