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News from the National Academies

Date: May 2, 2002
Contacts: Jennifer Burris, Media Relations Associate
Cory Arberg, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

No Single Solution for Protecting Kids From Internet Pornography

WASHINGTON -- No single approach -- technical, legal, economic, or educational -- will be sufficient to protect children from online pornography, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. It describes social and educational strategies, technology-based tools, and legal and regulatory approaches that can be mixed and adapted to fit different communities' circumstances.

"The Internet poses special challenges for those concerned about the availability of inappropriate sexually explicit material," said Dick Thornburgh, chair of the committee that wrote the report; counsel, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP, Washington, D.C.; and former U.S. attorney general. "It's not nearly as easy for an adult to supervise children who might seek or be inadvertently exposed to sexually explicit materials online as it is when such images are available in books or on the family television set. No single approach can provide a solution, since any one approach alone can be circumvented with enough effort. A balanced mix of strategies is needed."

A Safer Internet

The report serves as a practical guide for parents, teachers, librarians, information technology vendors and service providers, and public policy-makers. An essential element of protecting children from inappropriate material on the Internet -- and one largely ignored in the present debate -- is the promotion of social and educational strategies that teach children to make wise choices about using the Internet and to take control of their online experiences: where they go, what they see, to whom they talk, and what they do. Teachers, library administrators, Web site developers, and organizers of public-interest campaigns can play a role in developing and implementing these strategies.

The most important step adults can take to help children steer clear of potentially harmful online content is to supervise and be involved in their use of the Internet. Parents can start by gaining a basic understanding of what is on the Internet and being willing to have sometimes-uncomfortable conversations with their children. Home computers can be located in places that make solitary viewing impossible. Parents also can provide explicit instruction and guidance to their children about what they consider inappropriate activities.

Another important social and educational strategy is for families, schools, libraries, and other organizations to develop acceptable-use policies for the Internet. These policies should provide explicit guidelines and expectations about how individuals will conduct themselves online, thereby helping children make better choices when navigating in cyberspace. Children also need to acquire skills that will allow them to evaluate independently the information and images they are viewing. By improving children's "information and media literacy," they are better able to critically assess material, recognize underlying messages, and locate the information they seek.

Children should be educated in Internet safety much as they are taught about their physical safety, the report says. This might include teaching them how sexual predators and hate-group recruiters typically approach young people online, how to recognize jargon that signals inappropriate material, and whether to provide personal information. To guide adults, public service announcements and media campaigns could help educate them about the nature and extent of dangers on the Internet and the need for safety measures.

Technology provides parents and other responsible adults with additional choices as to how best to fulfill their responsibilities, but it must be integrated with education for best results. For example, filters are popular technology-based tools that are inherently imperfect. They can be highly effective in reducing minors' exposure to inappropriate material but only at the cost of placing large amounts of appropriate materials "off limits" as well. On the other hand, filters will always allow some inappropriate material to leak through to a child. An adult who relies primarily on filters to protect their child may think the child is "safe" when, in fact, the risk of exposure has only been reduced, not eliminated. Therefore, regardless of whether filters are used, a child must learn how to deal with inappropriate material -- a point that illustrates the essential need for education, the committee added.

Legal and Regulatory Dimensions

In traditional areas of industry or entertainment such as books, films, and standard retail outlets, society has limited children's access to certain kinds of sexually explicit material without restricting the constitutional rights of adults to purchase or access that material. The Internet poses a more serious problem because of the difficulty of distinguishing between adults and children in an online environment. Moreover, there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of enforcing obscenity laws, due to the limited number of obscenity prosecutions during the last decade and the increasing amounts of sexually explicit material in all media. Also, the Internet's global reach makes these issues even murkier, because legal control over domestic sites does not necessarily protect children from sites based overseas, the committee said.

Aggressive enforcement of existing anti-obscenity laws can help reduce children's access to certain kinds of sexually explicit material on the Internet. Public policy also could be developed to provide incentives for Internet service and content providers to behave in a more responsible manner with respect to protecting children on the Internet, such as taking greater care to differentiate between adults and minors before granting access to sexually explicit content, the report says. Policies can also be created to promote media literacy and Internet safety education for children, and to support self-regulatory efforts by businesses.

The online adult-entertainment industry generates about $1 billion a year in revenue from adults who pay for content. The industry is highly fragmented and information about it is meager. In the United States, about 1,000 such businesses operate online, with an additional 9,000 entities operating as small-scale affiliates, according to the best information available to the committee. These businesses support as many as 100,000 Web sites, with each site hosting multiple Web pages. Globally, there are about 400,000 for-profit adult sites.

Research on the technology and social science underlying this issue would help to address it more effectively in the future, the committee added. The science base for understanding the impact on children of viewing sexually explicit materials is sparse. In addition, the technology-based tools for enhancing the safety of children's Internet experiences are not well-matched to the growing diversity of channels through which children may be exposed to inappropriate content or experiences.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, Kellogg Foundation, Microsoft Corp., and IBM Corp. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Youth, Pornography, and the Internet for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Computer Science and Telecommunications Board

and

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL and INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE
Board on Children, Youth, and Families

Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and
Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content

Richard Thornburgh (chair)
Counsel
Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP
Washington, D.C.

Nicholas J. Belkin
Professor and Director of the Ph.D. Program
School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

William J. Byron
Pastor
Holy Trinity Parish
Washington, D.C.

Sandra L. Calvert
Professor
Department of Psychology
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

David Forsyth
Associate Professor
Department of Computer Science
University of California
Berkeley

Daniel Geer
Chief Technology Officer
@Stake Inc.
Cambridge, Mass.

Linda Hodge
Vice President for Programs
National Parent Teacher Association
Colchester, Conn.

Marilyn Gell Mason
Consultant
Tallahassee, Fla.

Milo Medin
Senior Vice President of Engineering and Chief Technology Officer
Excite@Home
Redwood City, Calif.

John B. Rabun
Founder, Vice President, and Chief Operating Officer
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Alexandria, Va.

Robin Raskin
Technology Consultant
Ziff Davis Media
New York City

Robert J. Schloss
Research Senior Software Engineer
IBM Watson Research Center
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Janet Ward Schofield
Professor of Psychology and Senior Scientist
Learning Research and Development Center
University of Pittsburgh

Geoffrey R. Stone
Harry Kalven Jr. Distinguished Service Professor
Law School
University of Chicago

Winifred B. Wechsler
Consultant
Santa Monica, Calif.


STAFF

Herb Lin
Study Director