FREDA BRIGGS

Can Porn Exposure Lead to Child Abuse?​​​​​​​

There’s this old phrase: monkey see, monkey do.  I see it in my kids all the time.  They are often shining examples of the worst of their parents.  Their angry responses mirror ours, they use the same phrases as us, they’re like us in miniature. Monkey see, monkey do.  

But what if it turns out that this ‘monkey see, monkey do’ can also be the case when children are exposed to pornography.

Some research came out earlier this year from Gemma McKibbin who works at the University of Melbourne.  

McKibbin looked at 14 cases of child abuse carried out by children.  She found that for children who commit acts of sexual abuse, pornography was a significant factor in 12 out of the 14 cases looked at in the study.  3 child abusers directly related their abuse to porn.  One of the 3 main points of prevention was to help young people manage their pornography consumption.

Porn harms kids.  In some cases, it is a factor in children becoming abusive.  It harms the abuser, who then harms the abused.  And sexually abuse does not harm in isolated ways.  For individuals and families, it’s not so much a pebble in the pond as it is an earthquake under the sea.

As people discuss and research the impact of pornography on young people, conservatives are often accused of being inflammatory.  They argue that porn is the cause of all evils and ills in the world.  So let’s be clear.  Here’s what this research isn’t saying.  It isn’t saying that everyone who watches porn will become sexually abusive: that would be an absurd and clearly unbackable claim.  Rather, it’s saying in the bulk of cases where children sexually abuse other children pornography is at the least a significant factor, and at worst a causative factor.

McKibbin isn’t alone in her research.  The late Freda Briggs also pointed out the alarming and growing rates of child sexual abuse perpetrated by children.

So what are we doing to protect our kids from pornography? 

We’re often giving them a phone, a laptop, a tablet. We’re assuming because they’re good kids that they won’t get up to mischief. We’re sticking our heads in the sand.

In the article linked above, McKibbin noted that “The access that young people are having to pornography, as well as our collective ‘turning a blind eye,’ is akin to a kind of cultural grooming of children”.

Maybe we can start by opening our eyes.  By rethinking the access to technology we give our kids.  By taking responsibility as parents and calling on our schools and government to help us raise and protect our kids from the clear harm that pornography can cause.

Porn and normal sexual behaviour among children

In my last post I wrote about the issue of child abuse perpetrated by children who had been exposed to pornography at a young age, with particular reference to the submission of Professor Briggs to the Senate Inquiry on the harms of pornography.

Briggs notes that one of the big issues for carers and teachers is identifying the difference between normal sexual curiosity and behaviour that is the result if sexual abuse or exposure to pornography. 

Considering the number of children in her study who watched porn with their fathers for fun, Briggs argues that “if a child is so psychologically harmed that he is replicating what he experienced, this constitutes reportable child abuse and intervention is essential” (p. 9).

So, considering that there are some sexual behaviours in children that clearly aren’t normal, it begs the question: what is normal?

If you want to read what Briggs has to say in full, check out her submission, particularly pages 14-18.  You can find it here

Regarding normal sexual curiosity and experimentation, Briggs writes:

Natural, healthy sexual exploration by young children involves voluntary involvement and equal sharing in information-gathering from looking at (rather than touching) each other's bodies to see if they are constructed identically. It’s about “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with equal participation. Children involved tend to be same-age friends at the same developmental level. Normal sexual curiosity is occasional, short-lasting and participants are easily distracted. There is intermittent activity with high interest at age 4-6 years and again at 8 years. This does not usually leave participants with a sense of shame, fear or anxiety. It may include fun and teasing, such as, “I dare you …” . Young children act out gender roles playing at “mums and dads” or “doctors and nurses”. They begin to recognise that it’s “naughty” when they are caught by adults who respond emotionally. Thereafter it becomes more daring, exciting and secretive. Participants are embarrassed when caught but don’t understand what the fuss is about.”  (p.14)

Following this, Briggs outlines what problematic behaviours look like in children according to their age.

The main takeaway here has to be that parents and teachers need to be more switched on in recognising normal v problematic behaviours.  Briggs notes that one main problem is that people often respond emotionally rather than asking thoughtful questions of kids.  Briggs also notes that people are slow to call the police when the perpetrators of abuse are children.  Further intervention is necessary.

Hopefully the Senate Inquiry consider this research.  From here we need to consider how to properly protect children, and protect them from an earlier age than most people would dare expect. 

Senate Inquiry on harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet

It’s great to see that the Australian Government is beginning to consider the impact of pornography upon young people.  A Senate Inquiry has been formed and has begun to receive submissions from members of the public.  You can find info on it here.

The scope of the inquiry is broad, covering not just the harm caused by pornography generally, but includes “trends in children's consumption of pornography, the impact of this on the development of health and respectful relationships, harm minimisation methods used in other jurisdictions and possible measures to be implemented in Australia.”

A bunch of the submissions are from concerned citizens asking the government to do something, without giving any real information of substance or recommendations.

However, the pick of the submissions so far comes from Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs AO.

Professor Briggs is the Foundation Chair of Child Development at the University of South Australia.  You can check out her qualifications here.  Needless to say, Briggs’ experience and qualifications mean she is certainly worth listening to.

In her 27-page submission, Briggs highlights a number of areas of concern.  Of particular interest is the role of pornography in abuse perpetrated by children.

According to Briggs, these (many) cases of child abuse likely have their genesis in pornography.  For apart from a child either being abused themselves, or having seen sexual activity in the home, the other predominant cause would be exposure to pornography.  Even more shockingly, Briggs notes from her own study of 700 children that many boys between 6 and 8 years old had watched porn with their fathers for “fun” (p.5).

Having seen and been shaped by this material, children then enact what they have seen on others.  Briggs notes cases of “boys aged 3-8 years obsessively seeking or offering oral sex, masturbating and/or attempting anal penetration” (p. 5). 

Briggs also notes that in many instances of children abusing other children, teachers and parents often ignored the abuse, stating that it was normal experimental behaviour.

She argues that schools and doctors aren’t equipped for dealing with these problems, which only makes things worse.  Police often aren’t interested because the offenders are children.  For me, well, I’ve worked in schools for a long time, and child protection has been a regular feature of every school I’ve worked in, but I don’t ever recall hearing about this particular need.

Whilst all of this is shocking, none of it is rocket science.  It doesn’t take a genius to consider that watching pornography will have some kind of effect on a child.  Nor should it surprise anyone that children will re-enact what they’ve seen; that’s what kids do.  Kids want to do what the grown-ups are doing.  They pretend to be teachers and doctors and superheroes and they play out what they’ve seen. 

But should kids be doing that with sex?  My answer is absolutely not.  What we’re seeing here is that porn distorts and twists normal curiosity

Surely, all of this would suggest that unrestricted access to pornography in our society inevitably harms children.  And while we as a society will never be united in our views on sex, if we’re united on anything it’s that children shouldn’t be sexually abused by anyone.  Surely we’re united on doing all we can to prevent children being exposed to something that will harm them.  Societies are built upon the need for individuals to give up some of their freedom for the good of the most vulnerable.  Let’s hope this Senate Inquiry begins to shed some light on the issue and offer some clear recommendations in protecting our kids from harm.

More on Briggs’ submission in the weeks to come.