Youth, Pornography, and the Internet: Although Technology and Public Policy Can Help, Social and Educational Strategies Are the Key to Protecting Children

By Thornburgh, Richard L.; Lin, Herbert | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Youth, Pornography, and the Internet: Although Technology and Public Policy Can Help, Social and Educational Strategies Are the Key to Protecting Children


Thornburgh, Richard L., Lin, Herbert, Issues in Science and Technology


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. …

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