Inviting a Public Health Response

Working together

An International Commitment

The Rights of the Child

An Urgent Problem to Solve

Child protection

Collaborative Change

Inviting a Public Health Response

Connecting to Protect is a world-first global initiative to tackle children and young people’s online pornography access, focussing on mental health and safety consequences.

In most countries throughout the world, children and young people currently have unrestricted access to online pornography. Research shows that this access has the potential to contribute to developmental and social vulnerabilities. The mental health and safety implications on children and young people accessing online pornography are multi-dimensional. As a result, we are creating an opportunity for representatives of many sectors to dialogue and create a coordinated global response. Implementing primary, secondary and targeted public health prevention and education measures is imperative to avoid a worsening of the situation.

Our global steering committee of experts and stakeholders are addressing this global public health issue commencing with a summit—a gathering of like-minded individuals who share a common goal to mobilize a global coalition and launch a resource and research hub. All individuals involved with Connecting to Protect are actively engaged in their own countries, recognize the importance of international action, and value the opportunity to learn from other professionals addressing the same challenges in different legal and cultural contexts.

Stronger Together is the inaugural event of Connecting to Protect, initially scheduled for October 2020 and postponed due to COVID-19. With the uncertainty of international travel and an increasing urgency to address this issue, the 2021 Global Virtual Summit provides an opportunity for worldwide stakeholders to contribute to public health responses and launch and build a global coalition to address the issue.

Stronger Together: protecting children from online pornography by inviting a public health response, is a world-first initiative to address this issue globally. The Summit will facilitate expert-led educational and collaborative sessions on strategic responses to protect children and young people from online pornography.

The summit will also inform a Global Action Plan: Strategic Response Report, aligning global initiatives to protect children and young people from accessing online pornography.

Social Issues from a Public Health Perspective

The basic approach used in public health seeks to define, monitor, and provide surveillance on the problem (using peer-reviewed research to inform practice); identify risk and protective factors; pilot and evaluate effective prevention programs, and ensure broad-based dissemination. Because of the health equity principles inherent in public health, many argue it’s also a social justice approach, while some see public health as more of a “medical model.”

Key concepts used in public health often involve the promotion of systemic change as well as an individual focus and developing programs based on data/research. Public health recognizes the impact of the broader environment on the behaviour, health and choices of individuals who live within it. Public health approaches point out the effects of the environment on individuals’ behaviour, and the way the environment shapes or perpetuates social norms which again affect behaviour. John Briere, Ph.D. clinician and adolescent trauma specialist points out that:

Toxic decisions seem rational in toxic environments.”

Social issues from the public health perspective involve problems that affect individuals or groups beyond their capacity to correct. Social issues are detectable when responsibility is shifted from individuals being able to adequately make changes themselves, toward holding external social causes or influences accountable. It is clear that many aspects of pornography meet this definition of social issues and warrant public health advocacy efforts.

An International Commitment

Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) pronounces the obligation of States to protect children.

“States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child. Protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programs to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.”

On March 2, 2021, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child passed an additional addendum focused on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, calling for “robust age verification measures”: 

XII. Special Protection Measures 

A. Protection from Economic, sexual, and other forms of exploitation: 

114. States parties should ensure that appropriate enforcement mechanisms are in place and support children, parents, and caregivers in gaining access to the protections that apply. They should legislate to ensure that children are protected from harmful goods, such as weapons or drugs, or services, such as gambling. Robust age verification systems should be used to prevent children from acquiring access to products and services that are illegal for them to own or use. Such systems should be consistent with data protection and safeguarding requirements. 

In respect of protecting children from the negative impacts of exposure to **online pornography, most States have failed. We intend to change that through our collaborative global summit, subsequent Global Action Plan: Strategic Response Report, and the promotion of a range of public health solutions to create change.

An Urgent Problem to Solve

The internet is the largest ever social experiment in human history. While its many benefits to children are manifest, it also provides them with direct access to harmful content, including online pornography, 24-hours a day. Mental health and other professionals did not and could not have imagined or anticipated the rapid acceleration and complexity of problematic sexual behaviours that have arisen from children’s exposure to online pornography.

Research has shown that children often stumble on harmful content by accident or because of natural curiosity about sex. Minors viewing legal pornography online is a child protection issue that requires urgent attention. However, what is often overlooked is how children’s exposure to pornography can contribute to their early sexualization which, in turn, renders them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation by those within their own peer or social group, or by predatory adults normally outside their everyday range of contacts at school—in the community or online. Ease of access to pornography also contributes to a host of other mental, behavioural, safety and health consequences.

Much of modern pornography portrays extreme themes and sexual violence. Unrestricted access to it will continue to be a significant contributing component to changing and rewiring the minds of children and promoting conduct that is at odds with widely established healthy norms. It has been found that higher-level brain functioning such as insight, empathy, intuition, and a sense of morality is strengthened in the brain when the mind, the body, the brain, and our relationships are integrated in a healthy manner. Thus, focused attention on pornography may hijack child development by the forming of damaging neural connections.

Knowing about the way the focus of attention changes the structure and function of the brain throughout the lifespan opens new doors to healing and growth at the individual, family, community, and global levels.
~ Dr. Dan Siegal

Peer-reviewed research and anecdotal reports indicate that unrestricted access and use of pornography fuels childhood trauma, sexual exploitation, self-produced sexual images, child-on-child sexual abuse, sexism and objectification, domestic violence, family breakdown, risky sexual behaviour, mental health issues, vulnerability to online predators, and compulsive sexual behaviours.

The potential outcomes from children accessing online pornography are by no means exhaustive and the fallout is difficult to ignore. Unless professional intervention and support services, policy/legislation, technological/digital, education, and therapeutic solutions are put in place to ensure children and young people gain the support they need, this crisis will continue to unfold before our eyes. Moreover, given that pornography is a global business, children will not be adequately protected unless and until the problem is addressed globally.

Defining Online Pornography

**“Online Pornography”: Attitudes towards pornographic visual depictions of sexual activity can vary substantially between cultures. It is unlikely there will ever be an agreed definition that will find universal acceptance. For that reason, it is best to anchor our discussions in existing legal standards.

Different countries have different definitions of what kind of pornography is considered legal. Some countries may not define it at all. Definitions that can range from the exceptionally strict and narrow, typically found in some theocratic regimes, to very broad and permissive, typically found in the liberal democracies. Where a definition does exist, generally “online pornography” would be sexualized content that is deemed suitable for adults to access. Adults normally are persons over the age of 18. In addition, it is noted that some online pornography platforms may host or provide links to content that is widely recognised as being illegal, for example, child sex abuse materials, revenge porn (also referred to as image-based abuse), and so-called “snuff” movies. The platform owners may or may not be aware that they are doing this, or they may not take sufficient care to prevent their virtual properties being misused used in that way, relying on the kind of legal immunities provided by the USA’s s230 CDA 1996 and the EU’s eCommerce Directive to avoid civil and criminal liability.