Recently, the international child welfare agency UNICEF published their April 2021 report “Digital Age Assurance Tools and Children’s Rights Online across the Globe” which caused widespread concern amongst child safety experts and advocates. The way this report handled the issue of child exposure to pornography was troubling.
Although it acknowledged that “there are several different kinds of risks and harms that have been linked to children’s exposure to pornography,” it then proceeded to effectively dismiss the research on these harms saying, “the evidence is inconsistent, and there is currently no universal agreement on the nature and extent of the harm caused to children by viewing content classified as pornography.” This messaging fails to give due consideration to the copious amounts of research on pornography’s harms to children.
UNICEF’s milquetoast assessment of the impacts hardcore pornography on children sets the stage for policies that put children in harm’s way.
Furthermore, UNICEF’s report expressed numerous misgivings about implementing age verification laws and systems that would reduce the number of children being exposed to online pornography. The report raised concerns about children’s privacy rights as potential barriers to age verification laws, or other legislation to protect children from pornography—but in reality, international laws give states broad latitude to protect children from such content. The amount of weight which the report apportioned to these misgivings, together with the lack of weight it apportioned to pornography’s harmful effects on children, send a very dangerous and socially irresponsible message.
Shortly after its initial publication, edits appear to have been made to the report to include more recognition of the harms of pornography, however, these edits still downplayed the documented harms. For example, stating, “the evidence suggests that some children appear to be harmed by exposure to some kinds of pornography at least some of the time, but that the nature and extent of that harm vary.” Therefore, even the updated report laid a faulty foundation for potential future policies that could put children at psychological and social developmental risk due to pornography exposure
In response to this troubling report, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation coordinated a joint letter to UNICEF, signed by 487 child safety experts and advocates from 26 countries.
This letter contained a sample of the relevant research on the numerous ways pornography harms children—such as normalizing sexual violence, fueling child-on-child sexual assault and other harmful behaviors, inhibiting adolescent brain development and learning, contributing to poorer mental health and poorer cognitive outcomes, and much more. We called on UNICEF to review this research and update their report in light of it.
Since the sending of the joint letter, UNICEF removed the report from their website.
Progress! The harmful messaging UNICEF’s report contains is no longer being publicized. We are hopeful that this means they are making further edits to the report, taking into account the research we shared.
Thank you to those who signed the joint letter to UNICEF—your voice has an impact!