Screens, Teens, and Porn Scenes: Legislative approaches to protecting youth from exposure to pornography

85 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2020

Date Written: June 9, 2020


Internet access is an essential part of daily life for most children. Due to the lack of online protections, American children have unrestricted access to the largest and most extreme adult video library in the history of the world. 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 being influenced by pornography because of the significant physical, emotional, cognitive, and sexual changes associated with adolescent development.

The large majority of today’s pornography does not reflect consensual, loving, healthy relationships. Rather, pornography teaches dominance, aggression, disrespect and objectification. The most current available research shows that many children want to repeat the acts they see in pornography. Consequently, the largest 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.

In addition, 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.

Several countries are attempting to address this issue by requiring pornographic websites to verify the age of each user. Germany was one of the early pioneers in protecting children online, using age verification since the early 2000s. The United Kingdom recently emerged as a new leader in child online protection. The Digital Economy Act of 2017 required age-verification for all commercial pornography accessible from the United Kingdom. This innovative solution served as a model for Poland and Australia who have now taken the lead in implementing effective 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, today’s digital environment is radically different than that of the past. Children use the internet more than ever imagined. The internet’s new versatility allows it to be integrated into nearly every aspect of life. In addition, the technology available for age verification has made significant advancements that enhance privacy, security, and anonymity. Internet filters have also proved largely ineffective.

Now is the time for lawmakers to come together and explore innovative solutions that will protect youth from today’s toxic internet pornography. The majority of Americans are in favor of making it more difficult to access internet pornography. 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 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 from social media platforms such as a content rating system, (5) call upon internet service providers to provide more widespread internet filtering services, and (6) consider state, federal, and international resolutions identifying pornography as a significant public health issue.

Keywords: pornography, legislation, youth, children, adolescents, free speech, strict scrutiny, secondary effects doctrine, exposure, sexually explicit material, internet, online, social media, commercial pornography, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Poland

Suggested Citation

Romney, Byrin, Screens, Teens, and Porn Scenes: Legislative approaches to protecting youth from exposure to pornography (June 9, 2020). Byrin Romney, Screens, Teens, and Porn Scenes: Legislative approaches to protecting youth from exposure to pornography, 45 VERMONT L. REV. (Dec. 2020, Forthcoming)., Available at SSRN:

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