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The NRC’s May 2, 2002 Report, Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, Agrees with FEPP on Three Crucial Issues

On May 2, 2002, the National Research Council (part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences) released a 402-page report in response to a request from Congress back in 1998. Congress had asked for research and advice on "Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids From Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content." The NRC’s Computer Science and Telecommunications Board established a committee that held hearings, conducted research, and put out a call for white papers from anyone with information to contribute on this highly charged subject.

In response, the Free Expression Policy Project submitted a white paper that made three basic points. First, there is no evidence minors are actually harmed if they seek out or stumble upon sexually explicit content on the Internet; the widespread concern about this issue is more a question of morality and "socialization" than actual harm. Second, there are profound problems with Internet filters as a solution to these social concerns, not only because filters, operating mechanically through "artificial intelligence" (i.e., groups of key words and phrases) block out vast amounts of valuable Internet content, but because technological quick fixes do nothing to educate youth about responsible and healthy sexuality. And third, there are non-censorious, educational ways of addressing concerns about youth access to sexually explicit content: media literacy, Internet Acceptable Use policies, and comprehensive sexuality education.

In its report, the NRC agreed with all three of these points. As to "protecting" minors, it noted that although "people have very strong beliefs on the topic," there is no consensus among experts about the impact of sexually explicit material. The committee said that there are some hardcore depictions "of extreme sexual behavior whose viewing by children would violate and offend" its "collective moral and ethical sensibilities, though this sentiment would not be based on scientific grounds." As to other explicit, but less extreme, sexual material, "protagonists in the debate would be likely to part company" on whether it is "inappropriate or harmful."1

As for technological tools for "protecting kids from pornography and other inappropriate Internet content," the NRC report is clear on the drawbacks of filters. Identifying "inappropriate material" through filters, it explains, "must rely either on an automated, machine-executable process for determining inappropriate content or on a presumption that everything that is not explicitly identified by a human being as appropriate is inappropriate. An approach based on machine-executable rules abstracted from human judgments inevitably misses nuances in those human judgments, ... while the presumption-based approach necessarily identifies a large volume of appropriate material as inappropriate." Either way, misclassifications "will inevitably occur," even putting aside differences in human judgment as to what is "appropriate."2 Moreover, "technology solutions are brittle, in the sense that when they fail, they fail catastrophically"; they are expensive; and most youngsters can easily circumvent filters if they want to.3

Finally, the NRC emphasizes the importance of education -- especially in media literacy and sexuality -- as the only really effective ways to address concerns about youth access to sexually explicit content. "Information and media literacy," it says, "provide children with skills in recognizing when information is needed and how to locate, evaluate, and use it effectively, ... and in critically evaluating the content inherent in media messages. A child with these skills is less likely to stumble across inappropriate material and more likely to be better able to put it into context if and when he or she does." Media literacy helps children and adolescents question whether sexually explicit images are realistic, and why they are being shown. "A media-literate individual understands how to evaluate the truthfulness and reliability of a media message," and "the motivations and intent of the parties responsible" for it.4

Similarly, sexuality education, the committee suggests, "offers a useful context for interpreting sexually explicit material." European children, who receive "early, frequent, and comprehensive sex education in a way that is not typical in the United States," have been "exposed to nudity and explicit material at a relatively young age" and "do not show higher levels of sexual addiction or teen pregnancy."5

The committee compares these educational approaches to swimming. "Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is teach them to swim."6

To read FEPP’s white paper, click here.
For the NRC report, go to

1. From the Executive Summary. The committee also notes: "Perhaps the most important point for adults to keep in mind is that many children may be better able to handle exposure to inappropriate material than adults give them credit for. ... [M]ost of the older teenagers with whom the committee spoke reported that today much of the sexually explicit material they encountered online was not a big deal to them. Even younger teenagers – in particular the teen Cyberangels who testified to the committee – seem to have been exposed to such material without apparent harm. (From Chapter 10.)

2. From the Executive Summary.

3. From Chapters 11 and 12.

4. From the Executive Summary and Chapter 10.

5. From Chapter 6.

6. From the Executive Summary.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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