We make the virtual world safer for children the same way we make the real world safer for children. Through good public policy and through public education.
We’ve all heard about predators using the internet to exploit children. How much should you worry about your own children? We answer some of your questions here.
What is child pornography?
While the definitions vary a little state to state and between the federal government and the states, it is generally images depicting minors in sexual poses or sexual situations. Nude pictures of children are usually not considered child pornography unless there is a focus on their genitals. Pictures of minimally clothed children in sexualized poses, but not acts, are generally not considered child pornography.
The Supreme Court ruled that photoshopped or animated images depicting children engaged in sexual acts constitute child pornography. If this sounds fuzzy, there’s no need to run to your family photo album and evaluate all the pictures of children in the bathtub.
In general, when prosecutors talk about child pornography, they are talking about finding obvious depictions of children in sexual acts, sometimes that involves a horrifying amount of violence.
How much child pornography is out there?
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has analyzed more than 132 million images of child pornography since 2002. And that only represents the images that have come to their attention. The rise of the internet and cell phones with cameras has made the production and distribution of child pornography much easier.
Who produces child pornography?
In the United States, most of it is produced by sex offenders who have found a way to profit from sexually abusing children.
Child sexual abuse generally escalates in intensity over time. A child’s boundaries are violated in non-sexual ways escalating to genuine abuse, the “grooming” process. Over time, the abuser’s acts often become more deliberate and intense, and their emotional control over their victim also intensifies.
At some point, if the abuser is confident they won’t get caught, they often photograph the acts. Photography has a two-fold purpose; the abuser gets an erotic “trophy,” and they have something to blackmail the child with, to keep them from disclosing their abuse.
Eventually, the abuser may start trading or selling the images they’ve produced.
Is it safe for me to post pictures of my children on social media?
It depends on what you’re afraid of.
Researchers estimate that 3.5- 9% of American men and 1-3% of women meet the DSM guidelines for being a pedophile. Most of them will act on their sexual urges towards children at some point, and at least 90% of them won’t get caught. And many people sexually abuse children who don’t meet the DSM guidelines for pedophilia.
Within your circle of friends, both in real life and on social media, there are probably some sex offenders. They may take an interest in pictures of your child, and that may make you shudder. But it is unlikely they will do anything to actually harm your child unless they have a face-to-face relationship with them.
I’ve heard about people taking pictures of little kids at the pool and keeping hundreds of them on their computer. Is that illegal?
A particular image either is or isn’t child pornography. Yes, pictures of children in various stages of undress are sexually gratifying to pedophiles, but if they don’t meet the definition for child pornography, they aren’t illegal.
However, if someone you care about has such a collection, it is a sign of something dangerous and warrants discussion.
How old should my kids be when I start talking about online safety with them?
As soon as they start going online, you should establish basic safety and boundary rules.
Never give out your address or phone number. If someone asks lots of questions that make you uncomfortable, don’t answer and tell someone. If someone, even a relative, is asking you to keep secrets or sneak around, tell someone. And if someone is asking you to send pictures to them, privately, tell someone.
Teach children the basics of sexuality and boundaries very early on. Talking about online safety should reinforce these conversations.
I once watched an exemplary mother going over some of these rules with her tween daughter. Her daughter mentioned something about meeting up with someone from a chat group she was on, and how she knew that was only done in public. Her mother said, “well, it’s a church chat group. You can trust them”. The moment you introduce qualifiers like that into your own mind, they’ll enter your kid’s mind, and you undo the entire lesson.
What is “sexting” and how worried should I be about it?
Adults who were sexually abusing children produced most child pornography until smartphones changed that. Now, minors who are in consensual sexual relationships will often exchange sexual pictures of themselves.
Legally, this is child pornography. Minors in possession of it can be charged with a severe crime; in most states, the laws haven’t been changed to reflect the fact that these videos were made by one minor for another minor they are in a consenting sexual relationship with. Another problem with these pictures that digital images can be duplicated and shared an infinite number of times, so they are likely to be viewed by others.
One minor blackmailing another with nude or sexual pictures (“revenge porn”) has become a feature in some cyber-bullying.
I just found my son watching pornography on his tablet. Should I worry?
It is not desirable for a minor to watch pornography. It normalizes unhealthy sexual ideals and can limit sexual satisfaction later in life. That said, most adults can probably recall seeing some pornography as minors.
As little as ten years ago, for a child to consume pornography, they either had little parental supervision, or the logistics of acquiring it limited how much they could view. And most likely, they were viewing commercially made pornography that followed industry standards and laws, including laws against using children.
Today, children can view an infinite amount of pornography on their phones or tablets, and it may include videos of one classmate raping another. Parents should discuss their family rules about pornography with their kids. They should accept it as inevitable that their kids will encounter some of it, sometime, no matter what they do.
If the child has a lot of it, you keep catching them; they get in trouble with it at school, etc., it may be wise to seek professional treatment. If a pre-pubescent child shows a strong interest in pornography, it may indicate that they are victims of sexual abuse.
I’ve heard some really scary statistics about children being approached by sexual predators they meet online. How worried should I be?
Everyone has heard the scary statistics about children being approached by sexual predators online. Everyone has probably seen “To Catch a Predator” or something like it. The good news is that most children who receive an unsolicited sexual approach while on line ignore it and don’t experience any lingering fear or negative emotions.
Most sex offenders select young victims with whom they already have a face-to-face relationship. Online exchanges and texting may hasten the grooming process, primarily because it facilitates the exchange of sexual pictures. Still, the grooming process is in full swing by the time this happens.
When you hear stories about teenagers being seduced away by online Romeo’s who convince them to run away with them, the critical feature is that the child was already considering running away; this rarely happens to a child who isn’t experiencing on-going abuse at home.
I’ve heard people say we should just give pedophiles stacks of child pornography and then we wouldn’t need to worry about them raping kids. Is that true?
No more than rape is prevented by giving rapists stacks of pornography. Pedophiles value their relationship with their prey, and that relationship isn’t replaced by pornography.
Pedophile’s sexual attraction towards children also intensifies over time unless they are engaged in particular programs to manage it. Giving them child pornography, or child sex abuse dolls, hastens that intensification, and it normalizes their belief that it’s OK to abuse children sexually.
One of the reasons depictions of child pornography that don’t use actual children are considered illegal is they hasten the development of sexual predators.