THE INTERNET HAS changed how information is made available to the masses. Online information is easily searchable, and much more readily accessible. While the Internet and new media have brought enormous benefits to everyone, it has also resulted in new dangers for a vulnerable section of society – minors.

Parents are rightly concerned about adult predators who interact with children online in order to have sexually explicit conversations with them, exchange sexually explicit pictures, or meet in person for actual sex. But there is another online problem that is affecting many more children – exposure to mostly hardcore ‘adult’ pornography.

Hardcore ‘adult’ pornography includes depictions of sex with persons who look like children, sex with animals, sex with excrement, sex with siblings, sex with multiple partners, sex with prostitutes, sex with she-males, sex with someone else’s spouse, and the degradation, rape, torture, and murder of women. Contrary to what some people may say, ‘adult’ pornography is not harmless.

How many children are exposed to pornography online?

According to a study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center (University of New Hampshire), the percentage of children (ages 10 to 17) who said they had an unwanted exposure to sexual material in the past year rose from 25 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2005; and 13 percent of these youth said they had “gone to an X-rated site on purpose in the past year”, compared to eight percent in 2000.

According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 45 percent of teens (ages 12 to 17) had friends who regularly view and download pornography from the Internet.

Why are so many children exposed to pornography online?

• Because the U.S. courts have invalidated every law intended to restrict children’s access to online pornography, and most website distributors of ‘adult’ pornography allow visitors to view their material free of charge (as teasers) and without proof of age.

• Because many online commercial pornographers promote their wares by unscrupulous means (for example, ‘porn spam’ or misleading domain names). Search engines also make it easy for children to find ‘adult’ pornography online.

• Because the U.S. Justice Department has not vigorously enforced federal obscenity laws against online distributors of hardcore ‘adult’ pornography.

• Because many parents don’t use filtering or monitoring technology.

How does ‘adult’ pornography harm children?

Dr Mary Anne Layden, Director of Education, Center for Cognitive Therapy said: “The messages of Internet pornography are psychologically toxic, untrue, and difficult to undo… You wouldn’t allow the drug pusher on the corner to come into your home… and teach your child about medication. Why would you allow the sex pusher on the Internet to come into your home… and educate your child about sexuality?”

“I have boys in their early teens getting into that stuff with really disastrous consequences. They tell me they actively search for pornography on the Internet, keying in such words as sex, nudity, pornography, obscenity, etc. Once they have found how to access it they go back again and again – just like drug addicts,” said Dr Victor B. Cline, a clinical psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah.

Robert Peters, President of Morality in Media, says: “Many men arrested on sexual exploitation of children charges begin their downward spiral by viewing not child pornography but ‘adult’ pornography, and child molesters often use ‘adult’ pornography to arouse, desensitise and instruct their victims. A growing number of children are also acting out with other children what they view in ‘adult’ pornography.”

How can parents protect their children from ‘adult’ pornography online?

• Don’t be afraid to “peek” over your child’s shoulder to see what he or she is viewing; talk to your children about how pornography harms people of all ages (for resource material, go to www.obscenitycrimes.org, Porn Problem, Help for Porn Victims & Help for Parents pages).

• Use filters and/or monitors on all electronic devices under your control that enable children to access the Internet. Be aware, however, that filters don’t block all pornography, that technology isn’t foolproof, and that as children get older most can access the Internet via electronic devices that are not under your control.

• Make complaints about hardcore ‘adult’ pornography on the Internet.
- CNA

What is being done in Singapore?

A REPORT TITLED “Engaging New Media – Challenging Old Assumptions” published December 2008 by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) said that in Singapore, cyber safety plans include the use of technical solutions, legislation, and public education.

In 2007, Section 376E added to the Penal Code criminalises sexual grooming of a minor under age 16.

The report said that the three Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Singapore are mandated by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to provide their subscribers a service that filters Internet access at the server level, “essentially delivering a ‘clean feed’ to the household without the installation of any software”.

This service filters out pornographic material and other undesirable content such as extreme violence, hate or terrorist websites. It is available from all ISPs at a monthly fee between $2 and $5. However, the report indicates that fewer than 20,000 subscribers use the service and many do not even know of its existence.

Members of the public can also report objectionable material to the MDA via email. The ministry will then investigate the reports and either issue a take-down notice for material hosted in Singapore, or work with international counterparts to deal with the issue.

MDA also bans 100 “mass-impact objectionable websites”. The government, recognising that blocking all undesirable websites is not feasible, maintains this blacklist for its symbolic value, reflecting society’s values and disapproval of such content. The list has never been revealed to the public.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has also created a cyber safety programme for children in primary and secondary schools. The ministry provides schools with starter kits to develop their own materials and methods in educating children about cyber safety, and encourages schools to involve parents.

However, as MOE has left the implementation to the discretion of individual schools, the degree of focus on cyber safety differs greatly between the schools.

The report notes that while filters and laws are effective in protecting children from harmful online content and contact in the short term, public awareness and education remains the long-term answer. Despite their best protection efforts, children will inevitably be exposed to harmful and inappropriate content. Children must therefore learn to read the danger signs and possess the necessary skills to react appropriately.

Community groups involved in cyber safety education and counselling of minors in Singapore include TOUCH Community Services which organises the CRuSH (Cyberspace Risks & where U Seek Help) cyber wellness programme launched in 2001. - MICA

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