Cover Story

Protecting children from the billion dollar online porn industry

With 134 million children countrywide having access to mobile phones and the Internet, there’s high probability that they are viewing inappropriate online content including porn. Decades of research has highlighted that viewing pornography is associated with anti-social outcomes, and that younger the age at which children are exposed to porn, the more deleterious the impact in terms of shaping sexual behaviour and attitudes in adulthood - Muskan Arora, Sanchea Sandeep Daniel & P. Mini 

         

Although on most social issues, post-independence India’s community of liberals who dominate the academy and media, have made significant contributions to the national development effort, especially by advocating a secular state, gender equality, and reservation of quotas for the historically oppressed scheduled castes and tribes and latterly OBCs (other backward castes/classes) in academia and government, on some issues they have got it totally wrong. One of them is in the choice of the economic development model. Ignoring the sub-continent’s five millennia-old tradition of free enterprise, in the mid-1950s they endorsed the Soviet-inspired centrally planned socialist public-sector-led development model which over the past seven decades has almost destroyed the high-potential Indian economy. The sin of adopting an inorganic ideology was compounded by high defence expenditure (the outcome of failures to resolve the Kashmir issue and negotiate a border settlement with China) which has starved the education and health sectors of investment.

Currently, misguided and feeble-minded liberals who oppose the beaming of pornography over the Internet are doing the country — and India’s 600 million children and youth in particular — a great disservice. 

Responding to the demand of several parent groups, lawyers and social activists (including the editors of EducationWorld), in August 2015, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre ordered all Internet service providers to block public access to 857 pornography websites. However following loud protests against “moral policing” from liberals (including best-selling simpleton author Chetan Bhagat) who seem to be unaware that over 300 million Indians are illiterate and another 500 million are at best functionally literate, the government reversed this order. 

But subsequently, hearing a PIL (public interest litigation) by Indore-based lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani, the Supreme Court criticised the government for failing to ban sites broadcasting child pornography. Therefore in 2017, the Union government issued an order blocking 3,522 degrading child pornography sites on the advice of Interpol and Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). Even as this government order is practised more in the breach than observance, the demand of right-thinking citizens who are aware of education and social ground conditions in India is that all pornography websites should be blocked out.

According to a survey released last year by pornhub.com, India is the “third most porn watching country” worldwide after the US and UK. And given the free accessibility of pornographic websites in India, there’s no guarantee that only adults are watching hardcore porn. Children and particularly teens have easy access to the Internet through digital devices such as smartphones and tablets. According to the Unicef Child Online Protection in India Report 2016, with 134 million children countrywide having access to mobile phones and the Internet, there’s high probability that they are viewing inappropriate online content. A survey conducted in 2017 by cyber security company McAfee titled New Family Dynamics in a Connected World reveals that 54 percent of parents in India report that their children have visited inappropriate websites — the highest in the 14 countries surveyed, including the US, UK, and Australia. 

Anti-social outcomes

Viewing pornography in which rape, sodomy and bestiality, fetishes and more are graphically detailed, severely imbalances children’s social, emotional and psychological health, say psychiatrists. Decades of research has highlighted that viewing pornography — regardless of age — is associated with anti-social outcomes, and that younger the age at which children are exposed to porn, the more deleterious the impact in terms of shaping sexual behaviour and attitudes in adulthood. “Children accessing pornography at young age display strong anxiety symptoms and report feelings of disgust, shock, embarrassment, anger, fear, and guilt. They are likely to be driven to acting out adult sexual fantasies and this can be very disruptive and disturbing to a child’s peers who witness or are victimised by this behaviour. Children under 12 years of age who have viewed pornography are statistically more likely to sexually assault their peers. In sum, children exposed to pornographic material are at risk for a broad range of maladaptive behaviours and psychopathology,” says a report titled The Impact of Pornography on Children (June 2016) by the American College of Pediatricians. 

Inevitably, the academic performance of children exposed to pornography suffers. “Pornography viewing has long been associated with decreased academic performance. In a Belgian study of adolescent boys (aged 12-15), the more they viewed sexually explicit material, the poorer their school grades were six months later,” says The Effects of Pornography on Children and Young People Research Report 2017 of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Aarti C. Rajaratnam, adolescence counsellor and director of the Child Guidance Centre and Counseling Clinic, Salem/Chennai, believes that the risk of children being exposed to pornography has increased multi-fold over the past decade with sexually explicit content being heavily loaded into globally accessible websites. “Pornography viewing has multiplied manifold because suddenly it has become accessible, affordable, and anonymous. With children and teens given easy access to the Internet by well-intentioned but ill-informed parents, the threat of children watching porn is dangerously high. In many cases porn can become addictive and take over children’s lives and make them lose interest in academics, sports and other self-development activities. This is a natural reaction because any form of entertainment that prompts changes in the pleasure centres of the brain is preferred over leisure time and activities that involve physical and mental effort, consistency and practice,” says Rajaratnam.

High risk Adolescents

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to freely accessible porn because they are undergoing intense physical, psychological and emotional upheaval. The major hormonal and physical changes that adolescents naturally experience, makes them curious to explore sex and sexuality. “Porn is misrepresentation of human sexual behaviour. It’s exaggerated and unreal, but seems to be possible to vulnerable and confused adolescent minds.

Therefore the effect of watching porn by pre-teens and teens is particularly damaging because they are most likely to develop unrealistic expectations of sex and likely to engage in risky behaviour. Also within this age group there are high chances aberrant sexual behaviour may become addictive. Teens are likely to develop a distorted idea of human sexuality and its role in fostering healthy inter-personal relationships. These distortions include overestimation of the prevalence of sexual activity in the community, belief that sexual promiscuity is normal, and sexual abstinence is unhealthy,” says Dr. Soumya Puttaraju, director of psychotherapy and counselling services, training and research initiatives at Jain University, Bangalore.

Maria Smita, a student counsellor and psychology teacher at Sophia High School, Bangalore, who has counseled children suffering porn addiction, says in most cases parents are woefully unaware of the Internet activities of their children. “I recently counseled a 13-year-old boy about breaking this disturbing addiction. An older friend had introduced him to it and he aspires to become an adult movie actor. I informed his parents who were shocked as they believed that he was spending time on social media. They didn’t have a clue about his Internet activities and never discouraged him from going online,” she says. 

Student counselors repeatedly stress the importance of parents monitoring children’s Internet usage and online activities, and immediately addressing any signs of addiction, depression and promiscuous behaviour through counseling. Imsusangla A.O, student counsellor at St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bangalore, advises parents to remain “observant and supervise what their children are watching, playing and listening to on the Internet”. “It’s a duty of parents to take the initiative to limit the digital screen time of their children and to install internet filters and controls. Also parents must keep the communication lines open and discuss media representations of sex and sexuality with their children,” says Imsusangla. 

Sex education lacuna

Unfortunately, even within educated middle class India, parents are embarrassed and reluctant to discuss sex and sexuality prompting children and teens to seek information from the Internet and pornographic sites. “Even in this 21st century, parents shy away from talking to their children about sex, sexuality and sexual safety. This prompts them to seek information online. When children are exposed to pornography at an early age, it leads to a distorted understanding of sex and in the absence of a parent or adult whom they can seek clarifications from, they tend to believe that deviant behavior is normal,” says Kala Balasubramanian, counseling psychotherapist at the Bangalore-based Inner Dawn Counselling. 

According to Balasubramanian, the chances of such children and teens themselves becoming victims of child pornography and online sexual abuse are very high. “Children and teens who view porn tend to believe that there’s nothing wrong with sexting i.e, sending and receiving sexually explicit images or messages, on the phone. Sexualising the other person or even oneself, without understanding consent and the legal implications involved, is also common. In many cases, it results in sexual abuse of peers,” she adds.

Even as parent vigilance and monitoring of children’s Internet activities and sex education are becoming vital for protecting children from the onslaught of online porn, there’s rising clamour from parents and educationists to address the root issue, and block unrestricted beaming of all online pornography in India. Easy access to pornography on the Internet in the new millennium has undoubtedly played a major role in unhinging the minds of a substantial number of illiterate people countrywide and created entire communities of sexual deviants and predators. The editors of ParentsWorld’s affiliate publication EducationWorld strongly advocate a blanket ban on broadcast of all pornography into India.

“Given that pornography is provenly connected with modern slavery, trafficking in women, intimidation and forced labour and can unhinge minds and create entire communities of sexual predators — especially true of societies plagued with widespread illiteracy — banning broadcast of porn websites is self-evidently a reasonable restriction in the public interest. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that smut, allowed to be broadcast freely on the Internet, will only be viewed by adults…  The Indian State should make plain its abhorrence of the production and broadcast of pornography which — as is becoming increasingly manifest in ‘advanced’ Western democracies where private enjoyment of porn has degenerated into widespread child abuse — has the capability of further perverting the minds and public conduct of Indian citizens,” said an EW editorial urging the Central government to restore the ban on all pornography websites (September 2015).

Curiously, Indian liberals who argue against a ban on pornography being freely broadcast into India don’t seem to be aware of ground conditions in this country. The 300 million citizens who are comprehensively illiterate and another 600 million inadequately educated neo-literates are very susceptible to mimicking the increasingly violent, degrading and perverted pornographic content — including child pornography — being manufactured in the US and so-called developed Western countries by a multi-billion dollar unchecked porn industry. They also seem unaware that the number of sex crimes against women and children is multiplying rapidly and that even in the West, there’s pervasive fear of crimes against children. 

The Central government has rightly banned — but not effectively blocked — the broadcast of child porn into India. It should issue strict notice to Internet service providers that violation of the ban will result in a comprehensive ban on accessing the India market for all services and products, and it should extend the ban to the broadcast of all pornography. 

 

Promote online safety

Dr. Soumya Puttaraju, director of psychotherapy and counseling services, training and research initiatives, at Jain University, Bangalore, suggests some simple ways to protect children and teens from dangerous online pornography.

Open door policy. When children invite friends home for an over-night stay or group study, insist on an open door policy rule. There will be resistance, perhaps a backlash, but be firm. Remember to discuss the open-door rule before the friends arrive. Children are very self-conscious and vulnerable to embarrassment, so respect but restrict their privacy. 

Checks and measures. Conduct periodical unannounced checks of their laptops/smartphones. It is better you do so openly, and explain this is a safety rule. Also it’s a better idea to have a shared digital device than exclusive ones for teens. If and when you do find inappropriate viewing material, rather than a dressing down, it’s advisable to convene a family meeting at which you can express your disappointment but admit that understandably, curiosity often gets the better of a person. Remove private Internet privileges and agree to the family rule that Internet browsing will happen in common areas (hall or dining room) of the house. 

Explore hobbies/sports. Boredom provides opportunity to develop dangerous solipsistic behaviour. So encourage extra-curricular activities such as sports or music, dance lessons. 

Get help. Don’t ignore or wish away online porn addiction. Seek professional help and engage a mental health professional to counsel children/teens. 

 

Sex education guidelines for parents

Kala Balasubramanian, counseling psychotherapist at the Bangalore-based Inner Dawn Counselling (estb.2013), provides some sex education guidelines for parents.

1. Don’t hesitate to discuss love, relationships, marriage and sex with children, especially teens. It’s best that they receive this information from a reliable adult than the Internet and uninformed peers. 

2. Discuss the dangers of unprotected sex before marriage, sexual safety, dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy with teenage children.

3. Educate them about pornography and explain that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry which profits by misrepresenting sexual behaviour and norms.

4. Be open to answering all questions. Your age-appropriate explanations are certain to be better than the information provided online and by peers.

5.Teach them about consent and the age of consent. The age of sexual consent in India is 18 years.