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Social media tempts teens with pornography

Advocates say loopholes, lack of guidelines put young users in danger

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Social media tempts teens with pornography

Katherine Martinko is training her children to go analog.

While studies show that a majority of children use smartphones and social media, none of Martinko’s sons, aged 9, 12 and 14, have ever had a smartphone or a social media account.

Instead, the boys use Martinko’s desktop computer to send messages to friends. They do their homework on school-issued laptops with internet filters. The family streams the occasional movie, but beyond that, her boys keep their time online to a minimum.

Martinko, a Canadian writer and blogger who speaks to families about digital minimalism, said this is by design. After learning about the effects of social media and smartphones on children’s social and emotional development, she decided to proactively shield her children from the harms.

When she heard that X, formerly Twitter, recently changed its guidelines to officially allow pornography on its platform, it only reinforced her decision. “It just seems like a recipe for disaster, to be honest,” Martinko said.

Last month, the social media platform posted new adult content guidelines that would allow users over age 18 to access “consensually produced and distributed adult nudity or sexual behavior.” The platform said it would ban sexually explicit content from highly visible places, like a user’s profile photo.

Many experts aren’t surprised by X’s announcement. The social media company never officially banned pornography in the first place, and a 2022 Reuters report revealed that the platform estimated that adult sexual content accounts for 13 percent of all X posts. A communications professor told Variety that X has traditionally been an “unapologetically provocative” social media outlet, willing to push the envelope further than its counterparts. 

Some social media experts applaud the platform’s move to set clear boundaries and allow users easy ways to shut off sexual content with a few button clicks.

But the platform makes it just as easy to undo those settings. WORLD found it only took five clicks to change a user account’s setting to view “sensitive content.” It also took five clicks to change a user’s birthday, although X limits how many times a user can do it. No proof of age was ever required.

“If you’re 14 years old, that’s like catnip,” said Benjamin Bull, general counsel and senior vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Although X isn’t as popular among children and teens as other social media platforms—about a third of X users are under 18—Bull said that the low bar for entry and the promise of racy content may send some teenagers towards its platform.

What users will find will depend on how well X enforces its rules.

Allowing only certain types of pornography means X will have the additional challenge of filtering out the illegal content from the legal content—sexually explicit images involving consenting adults. Bull said content creators will try to sneak images of child sexual exploitation under X’s radar. But add in AI-generated content, with its ageless computer-generated bodies, and enforcement of age and consent rules will undoubtedly get complicated.

So far, X is the only major social media platform to officially allow pornography. Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and others all have strongly worded prohibitions against sexually explicit content, but that hardly means children are safe using these platforms.

On Thursday, a monthslong Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that Instagram shows more nudity, violence, and hate speech to teen users than to older ones. Parent company Meta responded that its efforts to steer teens away from inappropriate content are ongoing, and that the investigation did not reflect the way actual teenagers use Instagram.

Last week, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told Congress it should require warning labels on social media. Some groups say more laws are needed to protect kids from social media’s harms. Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety, encourages federal and state lawmakers to pass Sammy’s Law, which would require social media platforms with underage users to grant parents access to safety software. It’s named after Sammy Chapman, who died in 2021 at the age of 16 after ordering a lethal dose of fentanyl from a drug dealer he met on Snapchat.

Berkman said that the software, which sends parents an alert if their child is viewing harmful material or engaging in illegal behavior, could have saved Sammy’s life. But TikTok and Snapchat severely limit safety software. WORLD found safety software that X allows on its platform, but it only screens explicit verbal content, not images or video.

“The fact that they do not allow third party safety software is unconscionable,” says Berkman. “It would protect from a range of harms that we see children exposed to, including sexually explicit pornographic material.”

Bull from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation says more lawsuits need to be filed. Social media companies are aware that they peddle sexually explicit material to minors, he said, but he added that a 1996 law protecting internet platforms from lawsuits over illegal content posted by users largely shields them from liability.

His office is working on a case in which a man posing as a teenage girl talked two 13-year-old boys into sending him sexually explicit photos of themselves. The man soon posted the images on X, prompting one of the boys and his parents to ask X to remove them. But an X representative said the photos didn’t violate their content policy. The images accumulated more than 167,000 views before law enforcement intervened.

“This isn’t even a close question. This is clear child pornography,” Bull said. “They knew about it and they wouldn’t pull it down.”

But lawmakers and judges have not yet passed or ruled on protections. Martinko says she will continue to restrict her sons’ access to social media, whether or not leaders put other protections in place. “My oldest son is almost 15 years old—I’m not going to wait around for warnings to show up on things or the laws to change to tell him ‘no,’” she said. “My job is right now.”

Other parents should not wait either, she said.

“If we had to choose between parents who are cracking down or legislation that’s cracking down,” she said, “I think the parents are going to be the most effective, most immediate source of benefits to the kids at this stage.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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