We must face reality: kids are being exposed to online pornography and it’s starting at increasingly younger ages. While the exact age of first pornography exposure varies, most anecdotal accounts and studies show between 7-13[i]. And what kind of content are these kids being exposed to? A 2021 study of three of the most popular pornography sites found that 1 in 8 of the titles suggested to first-time visitors depicted sexual violence[ii]. Descriptions included rape, incest, and ‘very young’ subjects. In addition, ‘teen’ was the most frequently occurring word, making it “a more common way to describe pornography than any description of a sex act or body part.” Since these sites don’t verify the age of their consumers, kids easily stumble upon their homepages and are instantly exposed to violent sexual acts. The impact on their wellbeing can be devastating.
Personal stories and a plethora of research[iii] outline various harms connected with youth pornography exposure. These include:
- Mental health challenges including depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem
- Risk of experiencing sexual violence – as either the one being victimized or the one perpetrating the violence
- Risk of being victimized by a predator or trafficker
- Risk of developing a pornography addiction
- Unhealthy expectations and understanding of sex and relationships
- Perpetuation of gender inequality
- Rise in cases of child-on-child sexual abuse
This is a concerning situation and it’s not only adults who recognize the need to act. A 2019 survey in the UK found that 63% of children aged 11 to 13 who had seen pornography said their first exposure had been unintentional and 56% of 11- to 13-year-olds wanted to be “locked out of websites for 18-plus year olds[iv].”
The pandemic has made acting to protect kids in online spaces more urgent than ever before as they rely on the internet for school, socialization, and entertainment. Unfortunately, children’s rights and wellbeing are often neglected in online spaces. It’s time to prioritize their rights in the discussions and decisions surrounding online policies. In fact, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) recently adopted General Comment 25 which recognizes children’s rights in the digital space[v]. State parties are advised to take all appropriate measures – including age verification – to protect children’s right to life, survival, and development. Implementing meaningful age verification is a step that the federal government can take in compliance with the CRC’s guidance to protect children from viewing sexual content online.
Parliamentarians have an opportunity to act now: the Senate is currently studying a bill to implement age verification. Bill S-210 would require pornography sites to ensure only adults can access their content. This is a logical and necessary step to protect kids. Other countries such as Germany, France, Australia, and the UK are well ahead of us in this process. Canadian children deserve to have their digital rights and wellbeing prioritized by implementing age verification on pornography sites.
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[i] https://www.mdpi.com/2673-7051/1/2/9/htm and https://www.revealingreality.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/BBFC-Young-people-and-pornography-Final-report-2401.pdf
[iii] Here is one helpful research compilation of studies on minors and pornography: https://www.echildhood.org/statement
[v] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRC/Pages/GCChildrensRightsRelationDigitalEnvironment.aspx , paragraph 14 and 114.