On Oct 10, 2022, the secretary for labor and welfare, Chris Sun Yuk-han, announced that legislation would be expedited to make it mandatory for professionals working with children to report abuse. Although this is clearly welcome, it is only the start, and it will hopefully open the door to a host of other much-needed child protection measures. This includes internet safety, where other jurisdictions are already taking the lead.
On April 25, 2022, for example, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution calling for “an assessment of the means and provisions to combat children’s exposure to pornographic content”.
This was a breakthrough, and it showed that global concerns are being heeded. Indeed, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has highlighted the massive amounts of pornography available online, including graphic and extreme images easily accessible to children. It has, therefore, thrown its weight behind governments seeking to ensure that children are protected from harmful content, in accordance not only with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (that applies in Hong Kong), but also with the authoritative guidance from the Committee on the Rights of the Child (that supervises the convention’s implementation).
The Council of Europe’s assembly has been galvanized by what it calls the “unprecedented exposure of children to pornographic imagery, which is detrimental to their psychological and physical development. This exposure brings increased risks of harmful gender stereotyping, addiction to pornography, early and unhealthy sexual relationships, as well as difficulties with developing balanced, respectful relationships in future life”.
This problem, of course, is not confined to Europe. Between February and May 2021, the Hong Kong Association of Sexuality Educators, Researchers and Therapists (the Association) surveyed 989 people, and the results were alarming. Whereas 62 percent of the interviewees said they started looking at pornography when they were aged 10 to 15, about 15 percent said they first encountered it before they were 9 years old. In terms of frequency, 42 percent watched pornography once or twice a week, while about 10 percent had become addicted, watching it every day. This is highly concerning, as pornography can cause psychological harm, leaving children damaged for life.
The Association discovered that, of the people who were aged 10 to 19 when they first encountered pornography, almost 30 percent admitted they had at least once desired to have sexual contact with children or teenagers, while 81, or about 11 percent, admitted to having enacted their urges. Whereas 41 percent said that, after viewing pornography, they thought about having nonconsensual sex or sexual contact with someone of the same or opposite sex, 83 people, or about 11 percent of respondents, said they had committed just such an act.
Some respondents revealed how their exposure to pornography had warped their approach to personal relationships, and left them with twisted mindsets. Whereas, in the eyes of males, women were objectified and sexual activity was associated with violence, some imagined that when a woman said “no”, she actually meant “yes.” It is, of course, both genders who are affected, and females can be left with low self-esteem and a distorted notion of what is expected of them.
There is a real risk that, when children view abusive and misogynistic pornography, they will conclude that such behavior is normal, and this can have long-term consequences
There is, moreover, a real risk that, when children view abusive and misogynistic pornography, they will conclude that such behavior is normal, and this can have long-term consequences. The American singer-songwriter, Billie Eilish, for example, disclosed in 2021 that, due to peer pressure, she was exposed to pornography at a young age (11), and this “destroyed” her brain and affected her personal relationships in adulthood.
In England, the children’s charity Barnardo’s revealed in 2021 how its front-line workers now have to help children who have been affected by hardcore pornography. In one case, a 15-year-old boy went from spending hours outdoors to watching pornography during lockdown. He was arrested after exposing himself to an older woman, and disclosed that he had been specifically viewing content that portrayed men exposing themselves in public to women who enjoyed this and then engaged with the men sexually. Barnardo’s was in no doubt that the boy’s actions were directly linked to what he had seen online.
Although some children are undoubtedly pressured into watching pornography, this is certainly not true of all, and some will simply be curious. A survey, moreover, by the British Board of Film Classification in 2020 found that 60 percent of the children aged between 11 and 13 who reported seeing pornography said it was largely unintentional. But whatever their motivation, their viewing is facilitated by easy accessibility, and this is why the Council of Europe’s assembly has called on its member states to “address the gaps in relevant legislation and practice with a view to better protecting children from exposure to such content”.
In the United States, the Supreme Court has recognized that there is a “compelling government interest” in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, and this includes shielding them from indecent material that may not necessarily be considered obscene by adult standards. This, however, is easier said than done.
Whereas the Law Reform Commission’s Cybercrime Committee issued its long-awaited consultation paper on July 20, 2022, it did not flag up any proposals for child protection online, although this cannot be the last word. It is, after all, illogical that while it is a crime to make pornography available offline to people under 18, pornographic websites can get away with it.
Whereas properly vetted publications with sexual content are openly available to adults in Hong Kong, anybody who publishes indecent materials to a juvenile can face up to 12 months’ imprisonment, plus a hefty fine. Such restrictions, however, disappear online, which is concerning, as the material is often of the worst sort. As Barnardo’s has explained, many of the pornography websites “feature depictions of practices that meet the definition of criminal standards of sexual violence, including rape, incest and so called ‘revenge porn’, which would be illegal to buy in the UK.”
If adult websites could only be accessed upon payment, this would help enormously, as most children do not have credit cards or bank accounts. Many websites, however, can be accessed by anybody free of charge, and their profits come from advertising.
In the UK, however, the roll-out of the Online Safety Bill, which, among other things, seeks to protect children online, has been hindered by concerns over freedom of expression, excessive regulation and state removal of content, but such considerations cannot be allowed to affect the duty of companies everywhere to provide systems that ensure users’ safety.
Protective legislation, therefore, is urgently required, together with a regulatory framework for the industry. As a bare minimum, adult websites must adopt age-verification software, with digital service providers ensuring that people aged below 18 are denied access
Protective legislation, therefore, is urgently required, together with a regulatory framework for the industry. As a bare minimum, adult websites must adopt age-verification software, with digital service providers ensuring that people aged below 18 are denied access. There needs to be tagging of online content, as “restricted to adults”, and circumvention techniques must be neutralized.
Although the commercial pornography providers insist their products are not for children, they often do little to stop them seeing it. They need to understand, therefore, that they owe a duty of care to young people, something the social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, readily acknowledge, and that breaches will have consequences. When, moreover, children encounter harmful content online, channels must exist for its early reporting by the child or parent, with the onus being on the provider to rectify the situation timeously.
In the UK, the British Board of Film Classification regulates commercial pornography sites, and a similar regulatory body is required for Hong Kong. It would oversee online platforms, and publish guidelines for providers.
Although websites can be created anywhere, the regulator would be able to identify qualifying commercial pornography sites, and insist they have child protections in place. If, for whatever reason, websites failed to comply, the regulator would be empowered to request payment providers, including credit card companies and PayPal, to withdraw their facilities. It would also be entitled to issue notices to access providers, like ISPs and mobile companies, demanding they block entry to the site, in the same way as they would if child pornography was being displayed.
The regulator must also be able to fine offending websites, and to issue orders prohibiting the provision of advertising services. Although, for geographical reasons, the regulator would not be able to close a website down, it must be enabled to block access to it, in the same way that the police force has blocked access to subversive websites in, for example, the UK.
In Britain, John Carr, the secretary of the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, has explained that the era of “internet exceptionalism” needs to come to an end, with the same safeguarding standards that apply offline also applying online. It is hard to see how anybody could argue with this, and many jurisdictions are now accepting that foot-dragging is not an option.
Quite clearly, therefore, Hong Kong must also get its act together, not least because, where child safety is concerned, it should always strive to be ahead of the game.
The author is a senior counsel and honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute of Against Child Abuse, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS