Children deserve not to be exposed to sexual content online or in person. They deserve to be taught that their bodies matter and should be treated as valuable. And they deserve to know that their hearts are precious and that they matter to the adults in their lives – and that those adults will work to protect them from harm.
For many years people have insisted that the online world is not the “real world.” There are elements of truth to this —a screen avatar can never capture the fullness of who someone is and the filtered versions of ourselves that we present on the internet can often hide what is actually happening in our lives — but in the nearly two years since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have found ourselves, at some point or another, living significant portions of our lives online. As we grapple with this brave new world it is important that we recognize how the shifting digital landscape affects children and teens and the ways that it can harm them.
A recent report from Thorn found that 14 percent of 9 to 12-year-olds had shared explicit images of themselves in 2020 and 21 percent said it was normal for kids their age to do so. Nearly one in five teens had shared sexually explicit images of themselves. Thorn’s report also found a rise in children using secondary accounts to avoid online supervision. In 2020, 25 percent of 9-12-year-olds surveyed said that they were using at least one secondary account and 73 percent said they would prefer not to say. This lack of supervision leaves kids vulnerable to online predators and exposure to explicit content. Of the minors who reported that they had shared sexually explicit images of themselves, half said that they had shared those images with someone they had never met in real life, and over 40 percent reported having shared the images with someone over the age of 18.
As shocking as this is, it is sadly not surprising given the rise in pornography use across all age groups and the increasingly violent and exploitative nature of that content. According to Fight the New Drug, “teen” was one of the most popular search terms on one of the largest pornography platforms for five years running. When fantasizing about sexual exploitation becomes accepted as “normal,” real-life exploitation increases, which is exactly what is happening with the growing number of children sharing self-generated child sexual abuse material.