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Internet access is an essential part of daily life for most children. Due to the lack of online protection, American children have unrestricted access to the most extensive and extreme adult video library in history.Consequently, children are being exposed to pornography at unprecedented rates.
A child’s first exposure to pornographic material is generally around 11 years old. Some seek it intentionally while others stumble upon it by accident. Adolescents are more susceptible to pornography because of the significant physical, emotional, cognitive, and sexual changes associated with adolescent development. Accordingly, adolescents are increasingly struggling with compulsive behaviors related to internet pornography and cybersex. Existing neuroscience literature suggests that adolescent exposure to pornography negatively impacts brain development.
Most of today’s pornography does not reflect consensual, loving, healthy relationships. Instead, pornography exhibits dominance, aggression, disrespect, and objectification. The most current research shows that many children want to repeat the acts they see in pornography. Consequently, the most extensive literature reviews find that pornography use is strongly correlated with sexual aggression in boys and sexual victimization in girls. Notably, a 2019 study among 10th graders in the United States revealed that boys exposed to violent pornography were 2–3 times more likely to commit sexual violence against a dating partner.
Several countries are attempting to address this issue by requiring pornographic websites to verify each viewer’s age. Germany was one of the early pioneers in protecting children online, using age verification since the early 2000s.The United Kingdom emerged as a leader in child online protection with The Digital Economy Act of 2017; this act required age-verification for all commercial pornography accessible from the United Kingdom. Though the United Kingdom recently abandoned the Digital Economy Act in favor of the Online Harms regime, the Digital Economy Act served as a model for Poland and Australia who are now developing their own age verification regimes.
The United States enacted the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 to protect children from online pornography. Both failed judicial scrutiny under the United States Constitution’s free speech protections. However, children are immersed in today’s digital environment more deeply than ever previously imagined and internet filters have proved mostly ineffective.
Now, lawmakers must come together and explore innovative solutions that will protect the youth from today’s toxic internet pornography. The majority of Americans are in favor of making it more difficult to access internet pornography. The technology available for age verification has made significant advancements that enhance privacy, security, and anonymity. Given the changes in the digital environment and available technologies, age verification may now be a viable solution under judicial strict scrutiny. Alternatively, age verification may be viable under other legal doctrines such as the secondary effects doctrine.
I strongly recommend that the United States Congress take action to (1) promote education regarding pornography’s harm to children, (2) support the digital identity industry, (3) draft new legislation that requires robust age verification for commercial pornography (4) call for greater child protection measures on social media platforms such as a content rating system, (5) encourage internet service providers to provide more comprehensive internet filtering services, and (6) consider state, federal, and international resolutions identifying pornography as a significant public health issue.
Byrin Romney is a recent graduate of Willamette University College of Law. As a student, he participated in a London-based externship with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the government appointed regulator under the Digital Economy Act’s age verification protections. The article that this post summarizes is accepted for publication with the Vermont Law Review, Volume 45. Child protection advocates shared Romney’s research with US Senators in hopes of stimulating congressional action. Romney now works in civil litigation in California where he hopes to gain more experience with technology law and continue to advocate for online child protection measures. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if any readers wish to further discuss.
Byrin Romney, Screens, Teens, and Porn Scenes: Legislative approaches to protecting youth from exposure to pornography, 45 Vermont L. Rev. (forthcoming Dec. 2020).
 Pew Research Center, Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018, 7-8 (May 2018); https://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/; Ofcom, Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 29 (Nov. 2016); The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Teens and Tweens, Common Sense Media (2019), https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/the-common-sense-census-media-use-by-tweens-and-teens-2019.
 The British Board of Film Classification, New Research Commissioned by the BBFC into the Impact of Pornography on Children Demonstrates Significant Support for Age-Verificationhttps://bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/BBFC%20Research%20into%20Children%20and%20Pornography%20260919.pdf (last visited Jan. 29, 2020); Patrick Howse, Pornography Addiction Worry for Tenth of 12 to 13-year-olds, BBC News (Mar. 31, 2015), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32115162.
 Khadijah Watkins, Impact of Pornography on Youth, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 57(1), 89 (Oct. 2018).
 Edgar Pacheco et al., Children’s Exposure to Sexually Explicit Content: Parents’ Awareness, Attitudes and Actions, Netsafe (Dec. 2018); The British Board of Film Classification, New Research Commissioned by the BBFC into the Impact of Pornography on Children Demonstrates Significant Support for Age-Verificationhttps://bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/BBFC%20Research%20into%20Children%20and%20Pornography%20260919.pdf (last visited Jan. 29, 2020).
 Eric W. Owens et al., The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19:99, 101 (2012); Jennifer A. Brown et al. The Components of the Adolescent Brain and its Unique Sensitivity to Sexually Explicit Material, Journal of Adolescence, 72, 10-13 (2019), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197119300065.
 Eric W. Owens et al., The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19:99, 100 (2012).
 Jennifer A. Brown et al. The Components of the Adolescent Brain and its Unique Sensitivity to Sexually Explicit Material, Journal of Adolescence, 72, 10-13 (2019), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197119300065; Rudolf Stark et al., Neuroscientific Approaches to (Online) Pornography Addiction, Studies in Neuroscience, Psychology and Behavioral Economics, 109 (Mar. 29, 2017), https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-46276-9_7.
 Ana J. Bridges et al., Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update, Violence against Women 16(10) ,1065-1085 (2010).
 Elena Martellozzo et al., I Wasn’t Sure it was Normal to Watch It, mdx.ac.uk, 41 (Jun. 2016), https://www.mdx.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/223266/MDX-NSPCC-OCC-pornography-report.pdf; Emily Rothman et al., Adolescent Pornography Use and Dating Violence among a Sample of Primarily Black and Hispanic, Urban-Residing, Underage Youth, Behavioral Sciences, 6(1), 1 (2016), https://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/6/1/1.
 Jochen Peter et al., Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research, The Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 509, 523 (2016); Eric W. Owens et al., The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19:99, 116 (2012).
 Whitney Rostad et al., The Association Between Exposure to Violent Pornography and Teen Dating Violence in Grade 10 High School Students, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48, 2137–2147(2019), https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.app.willamette.edu/article/10.1007/s10508-019-1435-4.
 German Association for Voluntary Self-Regulation of Digital Media Service Providers, https://www.fsm.de/en/compliance (last visited Dec. 21, 2019); Der Staatsvertrag über den Schutz der Menschenwürde und den Jugendschutz in Rundfunk und Telemedien [JMStV] [Interstate Treaty on the Protection of Minors in the Media] Sep. 27, 2002, Kommission für Jugendmedienschutz [KJM] (Ger.), https://www.kjm-online.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Rechtsgrundlagen/Gesetze_Staatsvertraege/Interstate_Treaty_on_the_Protection_of_Minors_in_the_Media__JMStV_in_English___19th_Interstate_Broadcasting_Treaty.pdf.
 Digital Economy Act 2017, Part 3 §14(1) (Eng.), http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/30/part/3/enacted?view=plain.
 Poland to Limit Youth Access to Pornography, PolandIn (Dec. 16, 2019), https://polandin.com/45815228/poland-to-limit-youth-access-to-pornography; https://opornografii.pl/files/attachments/79681934-1beb-11ea-b223-0200000b7fd7/projekt-przepisow.pdf
 Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997); Ashcroft v. ACLU, 542 U.S. 656 (2004).
 Andrew K. Przybylski et al., Internet Filtering and Adolescent Exposure to Online Sexual Material, The Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21(7), 405, 406 (2017).
 Robert P. Jones et al., In Search of Libertarians in America, Public Religion Research Institute 24 (Oct 29, 2013), https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2013.AVS_WEB-1.pdf; Robert P. Jones et al., A GENERATION IN TRANSITION: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials, Public Religion Research Institute 28 (Apr. 19, 2012), https://prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Millennials-Survey-Report.pdf.
 Yoti, White paper Age Scan ‘Powered by Yoti’ – Public version (Dec. 2019), https://www.yoti.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Yoti-Age-Scan_White-Paper_191219.pdf; British Board of Film Classification, https://bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/age-verification-certificate (last visited Jan. 29, 2020).
 See Renton v. Playtime Theatres, 475 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1986).
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