THE HARMFUL EFFECTS ON CHILDREN OF EXPOSURE TO PORNOGRAPHY

Autor: Peter Stock Fuente: The Canadian Institute for Education on Family

November 2004

A REPORT FROM CANADIAN INSTITUTE FOR EDUCATION ON THE FAMILY

© 2004 - Canadian Institute for Education on the Family may be reproduced without permission providing acknowledgement of Canadian Institute for Education on the Family is the source of this document is cited.

Executive Summary

Canadian society has become an increasingly pornographic society in recent decades with disturbing implications for the children raised in it. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between exposure to pornography and subsequent deviant sexual behaviour by children. The explosive growth of the Internet over the last decade and the freely available pornography to be found on this new medium pose an additional significant public health and safety threat to children.

Legislation and regulation are needed to protect children from exposure to pornography from traditional sources (television, magazines, etc.) while new criminal code provisions are required to meet the challenges posed by pornography on the Internet.

Introduction

This STUDY was provoked by recent news reports of children engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour, resulting arguably from viewing pornography. The first was a late-2003 news report from a Canberra, Australia hospital whose child-at-risk assessment unit documented a dramatic increase in the number of children engaged in "sexually abusive behaviour." In the mid-1990s the unit saw 2-3 cases a year. By 2000, that had risen to 28, and by late 2003 the unit had more than 70 cases. The hospital's unit manager Annabel Wyndham commented, ""We think this is a new thing of the modern world, because of access to the Net and - to be truthful - combined with some pretty terrible parenting."1

A March news story much closer to home covered the story of several unrelated police investigations of the sexual assault of children by other children in the Hamilton, Ontario-area. All of the victims were under the age of 12 and the oldest perpetrator was 13. In each of the cases, the perpetrators disclosed they were imitating behaviour they had seen portrayed on pornographic cable television channels and on the Internet.2

A THIRD EXAMPLE WOULD HAVE GREAT RHETORICAL FORCE - HOW ABOUT TORONTO POLICE CHIEF RECENTLY COMMENTING ON USE OF PORNOGRAPHY BY CHILD MOLESTERS?

Does exposure to pornography harm children? With the dawning of a new age of free access to a plethora of such material on the Internet, the answer to this question has renewed debate over possible public health consequences and the resultant public policy implications.

Some Definitions

Pornography

In Canadian law the production, distribution and possession of most pornography is no longer a criminal offence, at least as far as the judiciary is concerned. Most of the law dealing with "obscenity" was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1992 Butler decision. Exceptions are when children are depicted, or when other criminal activities (such as rape, bestiality, homicide, etc.) are also depicted.

Even so, Canadian law continues to describe pornography as a photographic, film, video or other visual representation that: shows a person who is engaged in or is depicted as engaged in explicit sexual activity, or; the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person, or; any written material or visual representation that advocates or counsels sexual activity with a person.

More simply, pornography may be defined as material that is sexually explicit and intended primarily for the purpose of sexual arousal.

Children

For the purposes of this paper children are defined, as per section 163.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, as persons under the age of eighteen.

Harm

Harm provoked by exposure to pornography can be inferred from the resultant deviant or abnormal behaviour on the part of a child. In our view, resultant behaviour does not have to meet the standard required for a criminal code conviction to be considered harmful.

Research into pornography's effects

A debate has long existed over the type of relationship that exists between pornography and the sexual behaviour of individuals who consume it. Some researchers believe that there is a direct causal relationship, while others argue that such a relationship cannot be proven.

Indeed, the difficulty of conclusively proving cause and effect is probably beyond the reach of current research given the necessity of exposing a large group to pornography and closely monitoring them for months or even years, while ensuring another control group is never exposed to pornography and is similarly monitored for months or years. It is hard to imagine, in our sex-saturated society, how the control group would not be exposed to some pornography. Conversely, it would be near impossible to monitor every action of the first group exposed to the pornography. Or, as such individuals would be aware of the monitoring, whether they would act 'naturally' (ie: engage in sexually deviant or criminal behaviour as the causal effect theory of pornography would predict) knowing that there was always someone looking over their shoulder.

In addition, given the harmful outcome (ie: sexually deviant behaviour) that such a causal study would be predicted to have, it would be thoroughly unethical for researchers to inflict such material on subjects in such a study.

However, what is not debated among serious scholars is the obvious correlative effect of pornography. A host of studies, from researchers on both sides of the causal debate, demonstrate a modest to strong correlation between exposure to pornography and sexually deviant or criminal behaviour.

Some Examples of Studies:

A 1987 study found that women who were battered, or subject to sexual aggression or humiliation, had partners who viewed significantly more pornography than those of a control group drawn from a mature university population. 3
A 1995 meta-analysis found that violent pornography might reinforce aggressive behavior and negative attitudes toward women.4
A US study of teenagers exposed to "Hard core" pornography, "Two-thirds of the males and 40% of the females reported wanting to try out some of the behaviors they had witnessed. And, 31% of males and 18% of the females admitted doing some of the things sexually they had seen in the pornography within a few days after exposure."5
A 1987 "panel of clinicians and researchers concluded that pornography does stimulate attitudes and behavior that lead to gravely negative consequences for individuals and for society, and that these outcomes impair the mental, emotional, and physical health of children and adults."6
A 1993 study found, "Exposure to sexually stimulating materials may elicit aggressive behavior in youth who are predisposed to aggression. Sexually violent and degrading material elicits greater rates of aggression and may negatively affect male attitudes toward women." 7
A 1984 evaluation of the increase in rape rates in various countries bears close correlation to liberalizing of restrictions on pornography.8
Three separate studies demonstrate that exposure to violent pornography may increase males' laboratory aggression toward women.9,10,11
Sources

Numerous sources of pornography have long been available in Canadian society, from magazines to films and television, but children have traditionally been denied access to significant quantities of this material through a combination of government regulation and parental direction.

Even so, in the years immediately before wide public access to the Internet, a 1986 study of 600 teenagers in the US, "found that 91% of the males and 82% of the females admitted having been exposed to X-rated, hard-core pornography." 12 There are numerous sources from which children may be exposed.

Magazines

In a 1979 survey of over 600 boys and girls aged 15 to 18, Aaron Hass found that almost 100% of boys and over 90% of girls had, "looked at sexy books or magazines…almost 60% of boys and over 40% of girls had seen a sexual movie." Hass found that the youth accepted the information as presented in magazines at face value. Hass concluded that, "Almost all teenagers have seen or read some form of pornography… Pornography provides teenagers with a sexual education. Many adolescents turn to movies, pictures and articles to find out exactly how to have sexual relations." 13

Twenty-five years later, the pornographic pictures and stories contained in thousands of magazines have found their way onto the Internet for any child to access. Though subscription based pornographic magazines have seen circulation decline or, in the case of Penthouse, disappear completely, their impact on children has increased as the material has entered the Web.

TV

Television is, perhaps, the most powerful of all the media stimuli that influences individuals and society. North Americans, particularly children, regularly watch significant amounts of television programming. Only recently has the Internet come close to challenging the dominance of television in terms of hours spent using media, according some recent surveys.

The content of much Canadian television has become highly sexualized in recent years. Some channels, such as Showcase, regularly broadcast 'hard-core' pornographic movies. Other more 'mainstream' channels are not immune to such activities, and additionally offer regularly scheduled prime-time programming, such as CBC's Fashion File or CTV's The Sopranos, that feature as much sexualized nudity as would be found in a seedy strip club.

The effect of such freely available programming on children cannot be understated. A 2004 study funded by the US National Institute of Child Health found that teens who watch a lot of such sexualized programming are twice as likely to engage in sexual intercourse themselves. The study of 1,792 12 to 17 year-olds were surveyed twice over the course of a year.

Rebecca Collins, a RAND Corporation psychologist who led the study said, "This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities. The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior."

The study found that programs that involved explicit discussions about sex had just as much impact as those in which sex was depicted. Collins said, "Both affect adolescents' perceptions of what is normal sexual behavior and propels their own sexual behavior."

And, the study found that 12-year-olds who watched the most sexual content behaved like the XXX 15-years-olds who watched the least amount. "The advancement in sexual behavior we saw among kids who watched a lot of sexual television was striking," said Collins. 14

Another study from 1999 found that children who view televised pornography risk emotional disturbance: "nightmares, anxiety, modeling behaviour and problematic attitudinal changes." 15

Though tighter controls on television broadcasting could prevent such harm, children can still access such programs over the Internet. The high speed and low-cost of personal computers and Internet access now allow for the streaming of such video in real time, and for the sharing of large files containing video in world-wide person-to-person networks.

Dial-a-porn

The 1980s saw an explosion of dial-a-porn phone lines, some charging outrageous tolls per minute of 'service.' At the time, countless news reports chronicled the use of such services by teenagers and even by young children.

Psychology professor, Dr. Victor Cline of the University of Utah, conducted a study on the effects of dial-a-porn on children. He wrote, "With every one of the children we studied, we found an addiction effect in making these calls. In every case, without exception, the children (girls as well as boys) became hooked on this 'sex by phone' and kept going back for more and still more."

"The children did not stop making the calls until they were discovered. In several cases more than 300 calls were made by a particular child. Disclosure usually occurred when the parents received an enormous phone bill. In nearly all cases there were some problems and tensions generated in the parent-child and family relationships because of their making dial-a-porn calls."

Numerous sexual assaults by children, against other children, were reported in the 1980s in connection with dial-a-porn. Among them a ten year-old Michigan girl was raped by two brothers, 12 and 15 years old, who had listened to several dial-a-porn messages. In California, a 4 year-old girl was raped by a 12 year-old boy who had just spent two-and-a-half hours listening to dial-a-porn.

Consumer and criminal complaints about children accessing such services have diminished considerably due mainly to actions taken in the late 1980s by the US federal telephony regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Domestically, Canada's phone companies, under pressure from the federal government of the day, reached a private agreement in 1990 to exclude such "undesirable" services from using much of the national phone system.

Even so, dial-a-porn appears to be making a come-back and late-night Canadian television has seen a resurgence of advertizing for such services in recent years. In addition, the development of Internet telephony may well circumvent any national regulation of this media in the future.

Video Games

Video Games are marketed primarily towards children, yet some games have significant content that is decidedly inappropriate. Much of the action in such games as Grand Theft Auto:Vice City and Duke Nukem takes place in strip clubs and bars with scantily clad women as the backdrop. Other games, such as Playboy:The Mansion and Singles:Flirt Up Your Life, are far more up front with sexuality as the dominant theme.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in a random sampling of the roughly 400 video games rated "T" for teens by the US-based Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), 27% depicted sexual themes although the ESRB had only noted such content on 15% of games. 16

Little research has been done into the actual effects of pornographic video games on children, though it could be inferred that the interactive nature of the media would make such pornography more potent than similar visual content on the passive medium of television. Certainly a study of violent content in video games led researchers to conclude that exposure to such media had a significant impact on participants views regarding real-life violence. The authors concluded, "The active nature of playing video games, intense engagement, and the tendency to be translated into fantasy play may explain negative impact, though causality was not investigated in the (study.) 17"

Such pornographic games are widely available in stores and can downloaded over the Internet either legally or as 'pirated' software.

Formal Education

Sex education in many Canadian school jurisdictions ranges from the indecent to the obscene. Graphic descriptions of various sexual activities, including deviant activities, along with an implicit or explicit instruction to "Experiment and find out what you enjoy," are common. While children may not be exposed to such 'sex-ed' for an extended period of time, unlike other forms of pornography, this pornography carries an official societal 'stamp of approval' given its source and may have an enduring impact on impressionable young minds.

Music and Radio

Whether it is the lyrics of such entertainers as Snoop Dog and Lil Kim, or the on stage performances of Madonna and Britney Spears, the music industry is an important cultural influence on children. Children spend about 40 hours a week, on average, listening to their favourite pop stars and other programs on the radio. This does not include time spent watching music videos, some of which contain the most pornographic content to be found on television. However, this does include supposed 'sex-ed' programs, such as 'Dr. Ruth' or 'Sex with Sue." According one study of teen-oriented radio programming, 22% of segments contain sexual content and 20% of these were "pretty explicit" or "very explicit." 19

Fashion

The sexualization of western culture is no better evidenced today than by the choices individuals make in terms of their personal dress and appearance. As a former Canadian Member of Parliament put it, "Prostitutes are hard pressed to compete with young (teenage) girls the way they dress today."

Indeed a host of pop stars, such as Britney Spears, who appeal to children, have helped promote a sexualization of apparel. In fact, some clothing is so explicit it is even self-labelled as such. According to the founders of PornStar Clothing their apparel is, "Market driven by its shock appeal, non-conformist attitude and controversial moniker. PornStar is 'alternative' clothing that is in demand among today's risk-taking Gen X and Y crowd. PornStar is for the rebel in all of us, someone who has a sense of humor but wants to let loose on the weekends and make a statement."

Pedophiles and pornography

Some pornography, in the hands of pedophiles, will actively 'seek out' children. According to numerous police officers who deal with child sex crimes, pedophiles frequently use pornography to break down the inhibitions of their child victims so they can abuse them.20 Pedophiles also use pornography (either in person, or over the Internet) to teach children exactly what the molester wants. One US study found that at least 62% of children entrapped in sex rings had been exposed to adult pornography 21. In addition, in one study, 53% of pedophiles admitted to deliberately using pornography to arouse themselves before they assaulted children. 22

And Now, The Internet

The introduction of the Internet has only deepened the problem for the most recent generation. Modestly Internet-savvy children can find pornography within seconds. This medium not only contains the most vile and deviant pornography imaginable, it also offers pornography in almost every one of the 'traditional' formats, from still photographs to real-time video.

Despite their wishes, children who attempt to avoid pornography can be inundated with 'spam' and 'pop-ups,' and misled by apparently innocent websites and links. Unsolicited communications from predators in 'chat rooms,' according to one study, affected an astonishing "one in five children between ages of 10 and 17 who received a sexual solicitation over the Internet in 1999. One in 33 received an aggressive solicitation from a stranger who asked to meet them somewhere, called them on the telephone, or sent them mail, money, or gifts." 23

And, unlike much traditional media, which is usually purchased or rented, the Internet is essentially free of monetary cost. Even the minority of children who lack Internet access at home often have ready access at school, public libraries and the homes of friends. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of children will likely be exposed to at least some pornography during their childhood.

This is no accident according to some researchers, who have concluded that much of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry is focussed specifically on 12 to 17 year-old males, with the goal of creating adolescent addicts who will remain life-time consumers. 24 This marketing strategy is not unlike that alleged to be used by the cigarette industry.


Pornography affects children

As much of the research demonstrates, there is a modest to strong correlation between exposure to pornography and deviant activity by individuals. Child-centered studies show that children are affected at least as much as adults are.

One researcher who argues that pornography harms children puts it this way, "A child's sexual development occurs gradually through childhood. Exposure to pornography shapes children's sexual perspective by providing them information on sexual activity. However, the type of information provided by pornography does not provide children with a normal sexual perspective."

"To children, pornography is instructional in that it provides a visual message about new information. However, that information is not an accurate portrayal of human sexuality. Photographs, videos, magazines, and virtual games which portray rape and the dehumanization of females in sexual scenes are powerful forms of sex education. Unlike learning provided in an educational setting, exposure to pornography is counterproductive to the goal of healthy and appropriate sexual development in children. It teaches without supervision or guidance, inundating children's minds with graphic messages about their bodies, their own sexuality, and those of adults and children around them." 25

For example, the 2004 television study conducted for the US National Institute of Child Health states, "Watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten adolescent sexual initiation. Reducing the amount of sexual content in entertainment programming, reducing adolescent exposure to this content, or increasing references to and depictions of possible negative consequences of sexual activity could appreciably delay the initiation of coital and noncoital activities." 26

Of course, there are serious public health consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases, that result from such sexual activity. Such consequences can only be considered harmful. Of course, such activity does not have to meet the standard required for a criminal code conviction to be considered harmful.

State of the Law

Canada's Parliament has barely discussed the issue of Internet pornography, let alone passed any legislation on the subject. When the nation's obscenity laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1992, virtually all pornography became legal material. Parliament reacted in 1993 by passing Bill C-128 to prohibit the production, distribution and possession of child pornography depicting anyone (real or imaginary) under the age of 18. Later amendments made luring a child over the Internet a criminal offence too, although Canada's low age of consent for sex, at 14 years of age, has prevented most prosecutions.

Yet, children appear to face no legal obstacle to obtaining 'adult' pornography, through most forms of media. Two exceptionS may be films and video games, which are provincially regulated, limiting the admission of children to theatres, and limiting somewhat the sale and rental of most pornographic films and games. Even so, children may still have access to such films through television and to both films and games through the Internet.

The United States has grappled with questions of regulating the Internet since public usage first exploded in the mid-1990s. In 1996 Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which prohibited sending indecent content to minors over the Internet. Parts of the legislation were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as too overly-broad. Congress passed the Child On-Line Protection Act in 1998 to restrict access to commercial pornographic websites and despite continuing legal challenges, the law remains in force.

In some settings civil sanctions are being pursued where criminal sanctions are not. A debate continues to simmer in libraries across North America over access by patrons, either adults or children, to pornography on library computers provided for public use. Numerous libraries have been sued by parents to restrict children's access to inappropriate sites. And, in August 2003, a suit was brought by 12 librarians against the Minneapolis Public Library over exposure to Internet pornography. By allowing patrons to view online pornography and print out such material, the litigants claimed the library had created a hostile work environment. The library agreed to pay the librarians nearly US$500,000 as a part of the settlement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

While no causal relationship has been conclusively demonstrated to exist between viewing pornography and deviant behaviour, there does exist a well-documented correlative effect.

A Dr. Victor Cline points out in a discussion of the effects of pornography, "The fact that we cannot adequately measure (the influences of pornography) does not mean that they do not occur or that they have no effects. For example, all of the evidence linking drunk driving with high vehicular accident and fatality rates is correlational and anecdotal. However, despite this, nearly all of us would agree that there is probably a cause-effect relationship here. And many laws have been passed as well as public policy decisions made, based on this assumption."

"In addition, I have not heard of any behavioral scientists who are critical of this interpretation of the data and evidence, even though it is only "correlational." Frequently, good judgment - correct inference, and sound logic have to be used - along with proper scientific data analysis, to arrive at reasonable judgments about risk of harm," he says.

"In the meantime, all people are faced with making daily decisions, without final knowledge as to whether or not to continue smoking or eating foods that may be carcinogenic (even though the data suggesting their lethality is only correlational or suggestive--not conclusive) and, similarly, whether or not to expose themselves or their offspring to pornographic materials," he concludes. 27

Presently, many parents appear to be aware of the potential for harm to children. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of parents are "very concerned" about their child's exposure to pornography from a variety of media sources, including the Internet. According to the researchers, "When it comes to TV, parents are most concerned that their children are being exposed to too much sexual content, followed by concerns about violence and adult language. Six in ten parents (60%) say they are "very" concerned that their children are being exposed to too much sexual content in the TV shows they watch; 53% are "very" concerned about violent content, and 49% about adult language." 28

As such, legislators may find significant public support for measures to reduce children's exposure to pornography. Among measures that could be implemented are:

Provincial or municipal regulations to govern the display of pornographic magazines and books in commercial settings, such as convenience stores, where children could legally be present, such as wrapping, bagging and minimum-height-from-floor requirements;
Provincial and municipal regulations to govern the physical location of commercial outlets whose primary business is pornographic book, magazines, films or accessories;
Provincial regulations to tighten the definition of pornography in music, films and video games, and prohibit their distribution to children;
Provincial and school board dress codes that emphasize modesty in schools;
Provincial and school board sex education curriculum focused primarily on the medical and scientific realities of reproduction;
Federal regulations to prohibit the radio or television broadcast, including cable, microwave or satellite broadcast, of pornographic material at times when children could be tuning in;
Federal regulations to prohibit access by children to dial-a-porn phone lines;
Federal Criminal Code amendments to tighten the definition of "obscenity";
Federal Criminal Code provisions to deny children access to domestic pornographic websites, and prohibit the transmission of pornography over the Internet to children (whether it is 'spam,' or person-to-person file sharing);
Legislatures and courts have long agreed that for their protection, health and well-being, children may not be entitled to the same broad freedoms to which adults may lay claim. Even so, none of these measures should unduly infringe on the free speech rights of adults. As such, these recommendations are intended to serve and strengthen the common good in a free and democratic society.


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13 Aaron Hass, Teenage Sexuality, Macmillan: New York, 1979
14 Rebecca L. Collins, Marc N. Elliott, Sandra H. Berry, David E. Kanouse, Dale Kunkel, Sarah B. Hunter, and Angela Miu Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior Pediatrics 2004; 114: e280-e289
15 Benedek, Elissa and Brown, Catherine "No excuses: televised pornography harms children". In Harvard Review of Psychiatry, v.7, 1999, p.236-240.
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21 Ann Burgess and Marianne Clark, Child Pornography and Sex Rings, Lexington Press, Lexington MA, 1984.
22 W. L. Marshall, "The Use of Sexually Explicit Stimuli by Rapists, Child Molesters, and Nonoffenders," The Journal of Sex Research 25, no.2 (May 1988): 267-88.
23 Kimberly J. Mitchell, David Finkelhor, Janis Wolak The exposure of youth to unwanted sexual material on the Internet Youth & Society, vol. 34 no. 3, March 2003 330-358
24 Reisman, J.A. "Soft Porn" Plays Hard Ball: Its Tragic Effects on Women, Children and the Family, Huntington House, Lafayette, LA 1991
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26 Rebecca L. Collins, Marc N. Elliott, Sandra H. Berry, David E. Kanouse, Dale Kunkel, Sarah B. Hunter, and Angela Miu Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior Pediatrics 2004; 114: e280-e289
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28 Victoria Rideout, Parents, Media and Public Policy, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004

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