Panel explains how state laws can help parents shield kids from online sexual material

Panel explains how state laws can help parents shield kids from online sexual material

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Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 9, 2024 / 15:35 pm (CNA).

With studies showing that most children view pornographic material before they reach their teenage years, several states have passed laws to hold websites accountable for allowing children to access explicit sexual material. 

The subject was the topic of discussion for four panelists at the National Conservatism Conference on Monday, July 8, in Washington, D.C. 

“Parents need better laws to back them up,” Clare Morell, a senior policy analyst for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said in the talk, titled “Big Tech and Big Porn.”

Morell was joined by Adam Candeub, the director of the Intellectual Property, Information, and Communications Law Program at Michigan State University; Ryan Baasch, the chief of the Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office; and Emily Jashinsky, the culture editor of the Federalist, a conservative online magazine.

“Many harms children suffer from digital media are collective in nature,” said Morell, who has pushed for laws to hold pornographic websites liable for children accessing sexually explicit content.

To date, more than a dozen states have laws on the books that require pornographic websites to verify the ages of people who access their content.

The first to pass such laws was Louisiana in 2022. Most states enforce the laws via private lawsuits or by levying civil fines when children access the material.

To access these websites, Morell said children are often able to “enter a false birth date, check a box, and they’re on.” Although parents can try to avoid these harms with screen-time limits and parental controls, she noted that parental efforts alone ”aren’t working” and that “leaving the solution up to the parents isn’t enough.”

“The government sets age limits and restrictions for the common good,” Morell added. “Such collective restrictions are needed now.”

Candeub, who has also worked on getting these laws passed throughout the country, said that obscenity laws historically “kept pornography in creepy stores in the edge of town that most people wouldn’t be caught dead in.”

But now in the age of smartphones, he said the material is easy for anyone to access anonymously with barely any barriers to keep the content away from children.

Candeub noted that the Supreme Court has shot down certain laws that are meant to protect children from accessing pornography because they also imposed burdens on adults accessing constitutionally protected sexual speech. 

For laws to survive legal challenges, Candeub said it’s important the law be “narrow and focused.” However, he also said the Supreme Court “must [also] reevaluate its views on how age verification burdens free speech.” He noted that the precedent is based on “pre-smartphone decisions.”

Baasch noted that pornography websites, such as Pornhub, are trying to make similar free-speech arguments in court to strike down laws that require age verification. But, if states ensure there are privacy protections for adults, he said those challenges should not succeed.

“Legislators can make their age-verification laws particularly safe under the Constitution,” Baasch said, adding that “ID requirements are permissible in … a host of other settings.”

The panelists agreed that pornography also posed numerous dangers to adults, but Jashinsky noted that protecting children is “a higher priority” at the moment.

“Most young people don’t make it out of high school without seeing a stranger engaged in violent sex acts at least once,” Jashinsky said. “... That is not normal. That is trauma. That is mass trauma.”

Jashinsky said that “modern pornography is not natural,” noting that sex historically has been “between humans in an immediate physical context,” but it is now “preserved and sold” and “defined as transactional.” 

Additionally, Jashinsky referenced studies that link viewing pornography with loneliness, anxiety, depression, stress, and the breakdown of marriages.

“To treat [the pornography epidemic] as anything less than a cultural emergency is to defend that status quo,” Jashinsky said.