Youth, Pornography, and the Internet



Youth, Pornography, and the Internet

Although technology and public policy can help, social and educational strategies are the key to protecting children.

The Internet is both a source of promise for our children and a source of concern. The promise is that the Internet offers such an enormous range of positive and educational experiences and materials for our children. Yet children online may be vulnerable to harm through exposure to sexually explicit materials, adult predators, and peddlers of hate. If the full educational potential of the Internet is to be realized for children, these concerns must be addressed.

Although only a small fraction of material on the Internet could reasonably be classified as inappropriate for children, that small fraction is highly visible and controversial. People have strong and passionate views on the subject, and these views are often mutually incompatible. Different societal institutions see the issue in very different ways and have different and conflicting priorities about the values to be preserved. Different communities–at the local, state, national, and international levels–have different perspectives. Furthermore, the technical nature of the Internet has not evolved in a way that makes control over content easy to achieve.

On June 23, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Enacted in December 2000, CIPA requires schools and libraries that receive federal funds for Internet access to block or filter access to visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or material “harmful to minors.” The term “harmful to minors” is taken to mean material that if “taken as a whole and with respect to minors, appeals to a prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion; depicts, describes, or represents, in a patently offensive way with respect to what is suitable for minors, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals, and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value to minors.”

CIPA also allows, but does not require, giving an authorized person the ability to disable the technology protection measure during any use by an adult to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose.

The Supreme Court decision on CIPA is unlikely to settle the public debate on how best to protect children on the Internet from inappropriate materials and experiences such as pornography and sexual predators. Indeed, nothing in the Court’s decision changes the basic conclusion of the 2002 National Research Council (NRC) committee report Youth, Pornography, and the Internet that social and educational strategies to teach children to use the Internet responsibly must be an essential component of any approach to protection, and is one that has been largely ignored in the public debate.

Although technology and public policy have helpful roles to play, an effective framework for protecting children from inappropriate sexually explicit materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced mix of educational, technical, legal, and economic elements that are adapted appropriately to the many circumstances that exist in different communities. An apt, if imperfect, analogy is the relationship between children and swimming pools. 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 pool protection measure for children is to teach them to swim.

Approaches to protection

There are three elements to a balanced framework for protecting children online: Public policy and law enforcement, technology, and education.

Public policy and law enforcement. Effective and vigorous law enforcement can help deter Internet pornography and diminish the supply of inappropriate sexually explicit material available to children. For practical and technical reasons, it is most feasible to seek regulation of commercial sources of such material. The pornography industry seeks to draw attention to its products, whereas noncommercial sources of sexually explicit materials generally operate through private channels. In fact, however, there has been a virtual hiatus in federal obscenity prosecutions during the very time when Internet usage has been exploding. Vigorous efforts against operators of commercial Web sites that carry sexually explicit material that is clearly obscene under any definition would help to clarify existing law so as to make it a useful tool in reducing the supply of such material.

On the other hand, for a few hundred dollars anyone can buy a digital camera and a Web site and produce sexually explicit content, publishing it on the Web for all to see. And because the Internet is global, law enforcement and regulatory efforts in the United States aimed at limiting the production and distribution of such material are difficult to apply to foreign Web site operators, of which there are many. Without a strong international consensus on appropriate measures, it is hard to imagine what could be done to persuade foreign sources to behave in a similar manner or to deny irresponsible foreign sources access to U.S. Internet users.

Other aspects of public policy can also help to shape the Internet environment in many ways. For example, we can seek to promote media literacy and Internet safety education, which could include the development of model curricula; support for professional development materials for teachers on Internet safety and media literacy; and outreach to educate parents, teachers, librarians, and other adults about Internet safety education issues. In addition, public policy can support the development of and access to high-quality Internet material that is educational, age-appropriate, and attractive to children and also encourage self-regulation by private parties.

Technology-based tools. Technology-based tools, such as filters, provide parents and other responsible adults with additional choices about how best to fulfill their responsibilities. A great many technology-based tools are available for dealing with inappropriate Internet material and experiences. Filters (systems or services that limit in some way the content that users can gain access to) are the most-used technology-based tool. Filters can be highly effective in reducing children’s exposure to inappropriate sexually explicit material, but there is a tradeoff. Filters also reduce access to large amounts of appropriate material. For many, that is an acceptable cost. On NRC committee site visits, teachers and librarians commonly reported that filters served primarily to relieve political pressure on them and to insulate them from liability, which suggests that filter vendors are likely to err on the side of overblocking. In addition, filters reduce nonproductive demands on teachers and librarians, who would otherwise have to spend time watching what students and library patrons were doing. Note, however, that filters can be circumvented; the easiest way to do so is to obtain unfiltered Internet access in another venue, such as at home.

Monitoring a child’s Internet use is another technology-based option. Many monitoring methods are available, among them remote viewing of what is on a child’s screen, logging of keystrokes, and recording of Web pages visited. Each of these options can be used surreptitiously or openly. Surreptitious monitoring cannot deter deliberate access to inappropriate material or experiences. It also raises many concerns about privacy that are similar to other family privacy concerns, such as whether parents should read children’s diaries or search their rooms covertly. Furthermore, although monitoring may reveal what a child is doing online, it presents a dilemma for parents because taking action against inappropriate behavior may also reveal the monitoring.

The major advantage of monitoring over filtering is that it leaves children in control of their Internet experiences and thus provides opportunities for them to learn how to make good decisions about Internet use. However, this outcome is likely only if the child is subsequently educated to understand the nature of the inappropriate use and the desirability of appropriate use. If instead the result is simply punishment, then whenever monitoring is absent, inappropriate use may well resume. Clandestine monitoring may also have an impact on the basic trust that is the foundation of a healthy parent-child relationship.

Online age-verification technologies seek to differentiate between adults and children. One way of doing that is to request a valid credit card number. Credit cards can be effective in separating children from adults, but their effectiveness will decline as credit card-like payment mechanisms for children become more popular. Other ways of verifying age can provide greater assurance that the user is an adult, but almost always at the cost of inconvenience to legitimate users.

There has been a virtual hiatus in federal obscenity prosecutions during the very time when Internet usage has been exploding.

Much more research on these technologies is clearly justified. The computer industry has produced extraordinary business success and some of the largest personal fortunes in U.S. history. Yet it has not committed a significant amount of its resources to leading edge R&D for the protection of children on the Internet.

Social and educational strategies. Social and educational strategies are intended to teach children how to make wise choices about how they behave on the Internet and how to take control of their online experiences: where they go, what they see, what they do, to whom they talk. Such strategies must be age-appropriate if they are to be effective. Furthermore, such an approach entails teaching children to be critical and skeptical about the material they are seeing.

Perhaps the most important social and educational strategy is responsible adult involvement and supervision. Peer assistance can be helpful as well, since many young people learn as much in certain areas from their friends or siblings as they do from parents, teachers, and other adult figures. Acceptable-use policies in families, schools, libraries, and other organizations provide guidelines and expectations about how people will conduct themselves online, thus providing a framework in which children can become more responsible for making good choices about the paths they choose in cyberspace, a skill helpful for any use of the Internet.

Internet safety education is analogous to safety education in the physical world. It may include teaching children how sexual predators and hate-group recruiters typically approach young people and how to recognize impending access to inappropriate sexually explicit material. Information and media literacy can help children recognize when they need information and how to locate, evaluate, and use it effectively, irrespective of the media in which it appears. They can also learn how to evaluate the content in media messages. Children with these skills are less likely to stumble across inappropriate material and more likely to be able to put it into context if they do. More compelling, safe, and educational Internet content that is developmentally appropriate, and enjoyable material on a broad range of appealing or useful topics, may help make some children less inclined to spend their time searching for inappropriate material or engaging in unsafe activities.

Social and educational strategies focus on nurturing personal character, encouraging responsible choices, and strengthening coping skills. Because these strategies place control in the hands of the children, the children have opportunities to exercise some measure of choice. As a result, some are likely to make mistakes as they learn these lessons.

These strategies are not inexpensive, and they require tending and implementation. Adults must learn to teach children how to make good choices on the Internet. They must be willing to engage in sometimes difficult conversations. They must face the tradeoffs that are inevitable with demanding work and family schedules. But in addition to teaching responsible behavior and coping skills for encounters with inappropriate material and experiences on the Internet, this instruction will help children think critically about all kinds of media messages, including those associated with hate, racism, and violence. It will also help them conduct effective Internet searches for information and to make ethical and responsible choices about Internet behavior–and about non-Internet behavior as well.

Understanding complexities

Despite heated public rhetoric that often reduces debate to slogans, the problem of protecting children on the Internet is genuinely complex. Some of the most important complexities include:

The term “pornography” lacks a well-defined meaning. There may be broad agreement that some materials are or are not pornographic, but for other materials, individual judgments about what is pornography will vary. In recognition of this essential point, the term “inappropriate sexually explicit material” was used in our report to underscore the subjective nature of the term. “Protection” is also an ambiguous term. For example, does protection include preventing a child from obtaining inappropriate material even when he or she is deliberately seeking it? Or does it mean shielding a child from inadvertent exposure? Or does it entail giving children tools to cope effectively if they should come across it?

Supreme Court precedent supports the constitutionality of differing standards for adults and children regarding material to which they may be allowed access; this is the basis of differing standards for material that is “obscene” and “obscene for minors.” However, its ruling on CIPA notwithstanding, the Supreme Court has also held that measures taken to protect children from material that is “obscene for minors” must not unduly infringe on the rights of adults to have access to this material.

There is no clear scientific consensus regarding the impact of children’s exposure to sexually explicit material. Nonetheless, people have very strong beliefs on the topic. Some people believe that certain sexually explicit material is so dangerous to children that even one exposure to it will have lasting harmful effects. Others believe that there is no evidence to support such a claim and that the impact of exposure to such material must be viewed in the context of a highly sexualized media environment.

Although it is likely that there are some depictions of sexual behavior whose viewing by children would violate and offend the collective moral and ethical sensibilities of most people, protagonists in the debate would probably part company on whether other kinds of sexual material are inappropriate or harmful. Such material might include graphic information on using a condom or descriptions of what it means to be lesbian or homosexual. As a general rule, this information does enjoy First Amendment protection, at least for adults and often for children.

Perhaps the most important social and educational strategy is responsible adult involvement and supervision.

Children may well be more sophisticated than adults with respect to technology. These “digital children” have never known a world without personal computers, and many have been exposed to the Internet for much of their lives. They also have the time and the inclination to explore the technology. The result is that, compared to their parents, they are more knowledgeable about what can happen on the Internet. Adults cannot assume that their children’s online experiences are anything like their own experiences in workplace cyberspace. A teenager testified to the NRC committee that, knowing her mother would “freak out” at the online solicitations and invitations to view commercial sexually explicit material she was receiving, she simply set up an AOL account for her mother with parental controls set to “young teen,” thereby blocking her mother’s receipt of such material. Her mother, not knowing what was being blocked, expressed surprise that her own online experience was much less intrusive than she had been led to believe would be the case. This testimony is consistent with a study undertaken by the Girl Scout Research Institute, which reports that “30 percent of girls [responding to the study] had been sexually harassed in a chat room, but only 7 percent told their mothers or fathers about the harassment, most fearing their parents would overreact and ban computer usage altogether.”

All mechanisms for determining whether material is appropriate or inappropriate will make erroneous classifications from time to time. But misclassifications are fundamentally different from disagreements over what is inappropriate. Misclassifications are mistakes due to factors such as human inattention or poorly specified rules for automated classification. They are inevitable even when there is no disagreement over classification criteria. In contrast, disagreements over what is appropriate result from differences in judgment about what material is suitable for children.

Deliberate viewing of sexually explicit material on the Internet is very different from inadvertent viewing. Technologically sophisticated teenagers determined to obtain such material will invariably find a way to do so. They will circumvent school-based filters by using home computers and circumvent home-based filters by using a friend’s computer. So the real challenge is to reduce the number of children who desire to look at inappropriate content. This, of course, is the role of social and educational strategies that build character, that teach appropriate Internet use and respect for other people. By contrast, inadvertent viewing (resulting, for example, from mistyped Web addresses or the ambiguities of a language where the word “beaver” has both sexual and nonsexual connotations) may be addressed more effectively by technology and education that reduce the number of such accidents and teach children how to deal with them when they do happen.

Beyond CIPA

The CIPA decision affects only schools and libraries that use federal funds to provide Internet access. Given the ubiquity of Internet access for young people and their sophistication about technology, parents, teachers, librarians, and the technology community, among others, have many opportunities for action that will help to protect children. Three of the most important are:

Educating young people to conduct themselves safely and appropriately on the Internet. This continues to be basic to their online protection. Therefore, parents must learn about the Internet from their children’s perspective and find the time in their busy days to talk with their children about safe and appropriate behavior. A National Academies website ( has useful information for parents. Teachers and librarians have opportunities to find or develop good educational materials for Internet safety and appropriate behavior, and to use these materials when they interact with children (or their parents).

Ensuring that libraries providing mandatory filtered Internet access for patrons institute smooth procedures for requesting filter removal that are not burdensome for the user. Indeed, the majority justices in the CIPA decision noted that although the statute was constitutional on its face, it could still be unconstitutional if it were implemented in ways that unduly infringed on the ability of adults to remove filtering from their own use.

Filtering improvements that would help reduce the concerns about inappropriate blocking. Technology vendors could develop more useful filters that would be better able to tell the difference between restricted and unrestricted material; have default settings configured to be minimally restrictive, blocking only types of material that are obscene in the legal sense; indicate why blocked sites were being blocked; and provide ways of overriding blocks that are secure and usable with minimal hassle and delay.

Contrary to statements often made in the political debate, there is no single or simple answer to controlling the access of minors to this sort of material on the Web. To date, efforts to protect children have focused mostly on technology-based tools such as filters. But technology, especially today’s technology, cannot provide a complete or even a nearly complete solution. Nor can more effective law enforcement, on its own, dry up the supply of offensive material. Although technology and law enforcement have important roles to play, social and educational strategies to develop in minors an ethic of responsible choice and the skills to implement these choices and cope with exposure are central to protecting them from the negative effects of exposure to inappropriate material or experiences on the Internet.

In concert with social and educational strategies, both technology and public policy can contribute to a solution if they are adapted to the many circumstances that exist in different communities. In the end, however, values are closely tied to the definitions of responsible choice that parents or other conscientious adults impart to children, and to judgments about the proper mix of education, technology, and policy to adopt. Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach–technical, legal, economic, or educational–will suffice. Protecting our children on the Internet will require moving forward on all these fronts.

Recommended reading

Kenneth V. Lanning, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis (Alexandria, Va.: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, ed. 5, 2001).

Whitney Roban, The Net Effect: Girls and New Media (New York: Girl Scout Research Institute, 2002) (available at

Don Tapscott, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Dick Thornburgh, former attorney general of the United States and governor of Pennsylvania, was chair of the National Research Council’s 2002 study Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, available from Herbert Lin () was the NRC’s study director for this project.