WASHINGTON — Advocates in online security gathered Nov. 5 at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington to detail how children and young people are being exploited sexually online, and ways to blunt it.
“Social media is removing previous barriers to grooming victims for child abusers, sex traffickers, pimps, and even sex buyers themselves because apps make minors’ accounts easily discoverable and accessible,” said Haley Halverson, vice president of advocacy and outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which sponsored the symposium.
“In order to dismantle the current predator’s paradise online, we need age-based default safety settings on social media platforms and other apps; these would include features like automatically disabling direct messages from strangers for accounts of minors, automatically disabling geotagging, filtering out pornography, and better algorithms to remove sexually graphic or sexualizing comments on minors’ photos or videos,” Halverson said.
“We also need policymakers to make it clear that 13 is not the digital age of adulthood after which mega-corporations suddenly have no responsibility to protect them as minors,” she added. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, has introduced a bill that would raise that age to 15.
Phylicia Henry, director of operations for Courtney’s House, a halfway house of sorts in the Maryland suburbs of Washington for women and girls who were coerced into prostitution, said some of its past residents “have been bought and sold blocks away from where I stand today.”
The average age of residents was once 17, Henry said, but now averages between 13 and 16. The youngest current resident is 9; previously, it had been 7. Henry attributed this to pimps trying to provide what their customers want: younger and younger girls based on what they had seen in pornographic videos and their easy access to young girls online.
Lisa Thompson, vice president of policy and research at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, displayed a series of slides, each containing findings of different studies on the efforts of watching pornography. One such study, of college students belonging to fraternities, showed the young men admitting they were more likely to want to commit rape after watching even “mainstream” porn.
“As titles and descriptions of mainstream adult pornography demonstrate, an emphasis on teen and young girls is inescapable,” Thompson said. “This genre of pornography attempts to accentuate first-time sexual experiences, the youthfulness and sexual inexperience of the performers, the significant age differentials between those engaged in sexual acts, as well as the small body sizes of the performers.”
This, Thompson added, caters to “the sexual fantasies of users that involve the sexual abuse of minors. … The thesis of such material, easily accessible to adults and minors alike, is literally sexual harassment and abuse.”
Christy Kane, the CEO of Totumlink, which seeks to “disrupt the mental health crisis” by providing evidence-based mental health tools and solutions to individuals and communities, said young men exposed to porn confess, “We don’t know what to do” in a real-life relationship because, as she put it, “no is supposed to mean no, but online, no means yes.”
Rob Spectre of Childsafe.ai, a New York firm which seeks to use artificial intelligence in protecting children from exposure to porn, said social media sites “know you’re pregnant a week before you do,” yet when it comes to knowing the age of their young users, they are “vapid.”
Spectre said this is because it is in their business model to not know about minors’ ages or usage patterns so as to reap more revenue. “If networks are incented not to know, they will make it their business to know as little as possible,” he added.
The task may seem daunting, according to Chris McKenna of Protect Your Eyes in Grand Rapids, Michigan. McKenna said 76% of U.S. teens use Snapchat, and 75% use Instagram. “Kids sleep with their device next to them,” he added.
But Spectre noted that a host of American industries, from meat packing to automobile manufacturing, were regulated into making their products safer — and American consumers safer — without sacrificing profitability. He suggested social media technology may be next to come under the regulators’ scrutiny.