The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, also known as UNICEF, released a controversial report in April 2021 on the rights of the very young on the internet, where it asserted that pornography is not always harmful to children.
The issue, touched on vaguely in a few paragraphs and scant data, argued that government measures to restrict children’s access to pornography should take into account children’s rights to access information, online freedom and their privacy rights.
The report, titled Digital Age Assurance Tools and Children’s Rights Online across the Globe, acknowledges that, “there are several different kinds of risks and harms that have been linked to children’s exposure to pornography.” However, it also notes that “but there is no consensus on the degree to which pornography is harmful to children.”
“Prominent advocates point to research arguing that access to pornography at a young age is linked with poor mental health, sexism and objectification, sexual aggression and other negative outcomes. The evidence suggests that some children appear to be harmed by exposure to some kinds of pornography at least some of the time, but that the nature and extent of that harm vary,” UNICEF explains.
UNICEF removes report after request from child safety experts
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation published an article noting that UNICEF’s handling of the issue of children’s access to pornography was “troubling” and drew questions from child safety experts.
In the section where UNICEF points out that there is no consensus on whether pornography is always harmful or harmful to children, the center explains that the UN agency in that message did not take into account “the copious amounts of research on pornography’s harms to children”.
“Furthermore,” the National Center on Sexual Exploitation went on to explain, “UNICEF’s report expressed numerous misgivings about implementing age verification laws and systems that would reduce the number of children being exposed to online pornography.”
The institution highlights concerns that UNICEF overemphasizes misgivings about government measures to limit children’s access to pornography. The UN agency argues in several passages that the right to privacy and online freedom are obstacles to laws on, for example, age verification for accessing pornographic sites on the internet.
While the controversial report was barely reported in the media, it did attract the attention of child safety experts. In fact, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) coordinated a letter to UNICEF signed by 487 child safety experts and advocates from 26 countries asking the UN agency to stop disseminating its report and to update it with more accurate and complete data and information, which they included in the letter.
After receiving the letter, UNICEF took the report down and stopped disseminating it momentarily, which NCOSE welcomed in its article.