Online Porn Driving Sexually Aggressive Children
By Patrick Goodenough Pacific Rim Bureau Chief

Incidents of young children displaying sexually aggressive behavior towards others appear to be on the increase, and exposure to online pornography is a key factor, according to a new study in Australia.

A Canberra-based health unit working with abused and abusive children has recorded a significant rise in the number of children aged younger than 10 who are committing sexual offences, including "oral sex and forced intercourse," against other children.

The child-at-risk assessment unit at Canberra Hospital says that in the mid-1990s, it was seeing as few as three children a year who were engaged in "sexually-abusive behavior."

By 2000 the number had risen to 28, and by the time this year ends, it expects to have seen 70 children in that category during 2003 alone, unit member and social worker Cassandra Tinning told a child abuse conference in Sydney.

The unit manager, Annabel Wyndham, made a copy of the paper available Wednesday.

The report differentiates between sexual behavior in children regarded as normal and developmentally appropriate - the "you show me yours and I'll show you mine" kind of games - and activity that was aggressive, secretive, coercive and usually involved an age difference between the perpetrator and victim.

"We're not talking about kids playing mummies and daddies together," Wyndham said in a phone interview. "We're talking about things like one child holding another child up by the neck in the back of a toilet block and pulling their pants down and doing things to them."

Most of the children seen in this category came from troubled backgrounds, and 40 percent had been abused themselves.

"Children who are doing that sort of thing have to have other things going wrong in their lives," she said. "They wouldn't be doing it otherwise."

Nonetheless, the unit also recorded startling data relating to Internet use.

Of the 101 sexually-abusive children seen over the past three years, almost all had access to the Internet, and 90 percent admitted having seen sexually-explicit material online, the report said.

A full one-quarter deliberately sought out pornography online as their main use of the Internet, while about 40 percent said they used the Internet for other purposes as well as accessing porn.

Twenty-five percent of the 101 children said someone else -- usually an older sibling or an older child or adolescent -- had shown them how to access pornographic images, sometimes exposing them to it against their will.

The unit also found that parental supervision of the children's online sessions was uniformly lacking.

But while the children admitted accessing the Internet at home at a time and in a place where a parent would find it difficult to supervise - usually a study or bedroom - parents questioned separately said they "doubted that their child would access any pornography via the Internet."

Wyndham said her unit did not believe the rise in cases of children behaving in a sexually aggressive manner was merely a matter of increased recognition of a longstanding problem.

"We think this is a new thing of the modern world, because of access to the Net and - to be truthful -combined with some pretty terrible parenting."

The research paper was presented by the Canberra unit and a government-funded body called the National Child Protection Clearinghouse.

One of its child protection experts, Dr. Janet Stanley, said there seemed to be a link between sexually-aggressive behavior among young children seen by the unit and Internet pornography.

"We're suggesting there's an association between the children's exposure to inappropriate material on the Internet ... and their acting out in sexually aggressive behavior, experimenting and modeling what they're seeing."

Stanley called for tighter government regulation of Internet service providers (ISPs) to help protect children.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for 2001, nearly half of children aged 5-14 have access to the Internet.

Fears about the risks of stumbling across pornography online were given weight earlier this year in research carried out by a public policy center called the Australia Institute.

It found that among 16-17 year old respondents, 84 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls had come across sexually explicit material on the Internet by accident.

(The survey also found that 38 percent of boys and two percent of girls among the respondents deliberately used the Internet to access pornography.)

Another survey this year found that 75 percent of parent respondents felt the federal government should do more about online porn, and 60 percent felt it should do a lot more.

An anti-censorship group, Electronic Frontiers Australia, said ISPs should not be expected to use mandatory filtering software. Rather, parents should supervise their children's access to the Internet.

Asked about the censorship concerns, Wyndham suggested that adult Internet users should be in a position where they could "opt in" for sexually-explicit material if they wanted to.

"You should have to go and look for it. Why should it be in your face?"

Young Media Australia is a non-profit organization which aims to promote the good aspects of media in childhood development while campaigning against the negative elements.

YMA president Jane Roberts said Wednesday parents, the government and society at large had roles to play in protecting children from inappropriate material on the Internet.

Citing the recent decision by Microsoft to shut down its free, unmoderated chatrooms because of child abuse concerns - a decision criticized by many, for different reasons - Roberts said "from our perspective, any attempt to stop in appropriate access to children should be applauded."

She acknowledged that policing the Internet was very difficult for governments.

Much of the challenge lay in educating parents about both the benefits and drawbacks of the Internet, and encouraging them to develop a sense of trust with their children as well as supervising online use.

YMA argues strongly in favor of ensuring that computers are placed in a public area of the home.

"Kids are often far more savvy about using the technology than their parents are," Roberts said. "You have parents who are happy to have children in their bedrooms with the door closed and the computer on ... the first thing we say is, get those computers out of the bedroom."