IEET > Rights > Fellows > Russell Blackford > PrivacySurveillance > ReproRights
What About the Children?

At a time when the Australian government has announced its decision to introduce a new regime to censor the Internet, it’s worth thinking again about the argument that exposure to certain kinds of speech and expression might be harmful to children. The problem is that it is difficult to find evidence as to what kinds of material are actually likely to produce that kind of harm.

I am prepared to accept that the state has an interest in paternalistic protection of children from propaganda for dangerous commercial products such as cigarettes. But what other kinds of harm might be relevant? Before banning speech on this basis, a legislature would presumably need to be armed with studies of what kinds of material produce feelings of distress, shock, nausea, and so on, or even psychological trauma of the kind that could be evidenced by, for example, phobias, withdrawal, or nightmares.

While more needs to be known, I suggest the following as a first approximation. The kinds of speech and expression that are likely to produce distress, or even psychological trauma, if shown to young children, might include depictions of cruelty to animals, depictions of sympathetic human or animal characters being killed, and supernatural threats (such as threats of hellfire or divine vengeance). Obviously, it would difficult to frame legislation that is directed at protecting children from exposure to this sort of material, though classification codes that offer advice to parents, rather than attempting to ban speech and expression outright, may be of some value in this respect. Furthermore, it is not obvious that using an age such as 18 would be appropriate if the idea is to protect young children from distress or psychological trauma: i.e., it is not at all clear that any particular material is likely to have such an impact on, say, teenagers, any more than on adults.

What counts as “harm” to children outside the area of distress or psychological trauma might also depend on the beliefs and values of the person alleging the harm. A conventional moralist driven by Augustinian ideas that the body and its functions are shameful might find something “harmful” in any exposure of children to nudity — but such contestable ideas should receive no official support in a liberal society.

By contrast, somebody with very different beliefs and values might consider it more harmful to expose young children to traditional religious ideas. It may be that ideas of gods, devils, spirits, and so on possess a psychological attraction for human beings that is out of proportion to the actual evidence that any such things exist (perhaps because we have evolved with a tendency to over-attribute agency or purpose to the phenomena around us). Children may be especially prone to absorbing such ideas - even though they are neither well-evidenced nor actually true - especially if they appear to be supported by parents or other adult authority figures. As a result, many children may grow to adulthood with false and possibly overly-restrictive worldviews that they cannot easily shed. Doctrines taught to individuals as children can become foundational for them. Hence, even if there is no evidence for the truth of these doctrines, by our usual standards of evidence for other things, it can become almost impossible to shift people from them — or for them to free themselves. So why not ban all images or discussions of gods, devils, and so on, if young children might be exposed to them?

Such a question merits the answer that no liberal society can be expected to adopt a policy of officially deeming the exposure of young children to religious ideas to be harmful. Any attempt to adopt this as a policy would fly in the face of traditional ideas of freedom of religion, which have included the freedom of adults to bring up their children within the sect of their choice. Yet the argument that this actually is harmful appears to be far more cogent than the argument that children are harmed merely from exposure to, say, images of naked human beings, or to much of the wide range of material that can be described as “indecent”.

I suggest that, if the state seriously wished to protect children from harm that results merely from being exposed to certain kinds of communications, rather than responding to ill-informed moral panic about the Internet, it would need to conduct extensive psychological and sociological research. Even then, it would have a great deal of difficulty determining an objective standard of “harm” — and if it somehow succeeded, the product of its investigations might well be surprising.

In all the circumstances that I’ve referred to, concerns about harms to children merely from exposure to certain images or ideas justify only a relatively minor role for the state. It may, as I’ve stated, have a significant paternalistic role in protecting children from advertising for dangerous products such as cigarettes. Beyond that, it can establish systems that give assistance to parents in making decisions about what material they should allow their young children to watch, read, or access on television and the Internet, but it is questionable how much genuine good the government and its agencies can really do where the Internet is concerned. There is no substitute for parental supervision, and concerns about Internet nasties should not be used as an excuse for sweeping censorship of communications between adults. Cool consideration of these issues strengthens, rather than weakens, the case for constitutional protection of freedom of speech.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


I find the growing interference of nanny-states in each and every aspect of our lives disgusting.

Nobody protected us from reality when we were kids, and yet most of us have grown to become reasonably balanced and responsible adults. Same for our fathers. I think we should show the same respect to younger generations.

But of course, this has nothing to do with what is good for the people. It is about control freaks craving even more control.

If a person, such as myself, objects to a political leader who recommends to school children books that romanticize the rape of 13-year-old children, does that mean I am “driven by Augustinian ideas that the body and its functions are shameful”?

‘romanticize the rape of 13-year-old children…’

You’re going to have to provide some context and a legitimate example of that actually occurring or your statement is worse than useless.

As you wish, Brian. I hope the following will pass the filter at IEET.

President Obama’s Safe Schools Czar Kevin Jennings and his GLSEN organization were promoting books to school-aged children, including one with the following lines, coming from a thirteen-year old boy:

“This incident (a rape) should have soured me on men, but it only made me more confused and needful. One day later, something accidental happened that would change my life. I discovered that at a urinal I could actually see someone else’s penis. I was ecstatic and fearful, but I wanted more. One day, at a local shopping mall, as I was trying to sneak a peek at penises in the rest rooms, a man at the urinal actually turned to me and started playing with himself. He flashed me a gold-toothed smirk and motioned for me to come over. Shocked, I zippered up and ran out, but the seeds had been laid. The whole world of rest-room sex had opened itself up to me.

Soon I was spending a great deal of time hanging out in shopping malls and cruising the rest rooms for sexual encounters. My rest-room exploits started to be a great burden on my mind. The better part of the year was spent making deals with God, asking for a sign, then ignoring and rationalizing everything I perceived to be a sign, praying for forgiveness, and being obsessed with raging hormones and a seemingly endless supply of d**ks…”

For more examples of what (ahem, non-Augustinian) books Jennings’ organization recommends to children, just Google on “Fistgate.”

We wouldn’t think of censoring such a loyal Teabagging fan Veronica.

So, back to your question about whether you are an anti-sex prude, I think you probably are. The book in question is “Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade” which has been shamefully demagogued by the Right as we have come to expect:

The passage in question, in context, is not at all an endorsement of teens having sex with adults, of rape, or even of anonymous encounters. It is in fact a sad comment that a gay teen put himself in harm’s way because our homophobic society made it so difficult to pursue safe sex with peers.

Teaching kids a sex-positive message that respects queer experience means acknowledging all kinds of personal history that makes us squirm. But if you don’t want your kid to read it I’m absolutely sure there is no school in the US that would force them to.

And you remind me of my own sex ed class at the Unitarian Church back in 1974, where I was obliged to read a passage about masturbation from Portnoy’s Complaint to my classmates in order to break the ice. The experience most certainly did not normalize or romanticize for me abusing a piece of liver as described.

Now if I can direct your attention to the real threat to American morals, it might be the shameful habit that our right-wingers have of lying about everything, and working themselves up into a paranoic fervor that justifies acts of violence. That’s more worrisome I think than whether teenagers might discover that people who have been raped may still pursue sexual relationships.

There was a teenage boy lying in a hospital in a full body cast. The doctor asked him, “why in the world were you rollerblading on the freeway?”
See the end of this post for the boy’s response.

Mr. Hughes, I’m not sure why you think you know so much about me. First, not only am I not a teabagger, I don’t even know one. I hear some of them are kooks. But if you want to resort to the argument of “If you oppose some of the President’s choices, you must be a teabagger,” that’s your prerogative. Similarly, if I oppose certain material for children, including fisting kits, that must make me an anti-sex prude.  Tell that to my three children.

Mr. Hughes believes the passage in question is out of context and is not at all an endorsement of teens having sex with adults, of rape, or even of anonymous encounters.  What a loaded sentence. Of course it was not an endorsement of rape, but it was an endorsement of anonymous encounters with men. Not like that would be new to GLSEN, who passed out literature endorsing such behavior for kids who might like to “cruise the parks”:

“No Dookie On Your Noodle! Nobody knows better than queer men that sh*t happens. It’s just a fact of lifeand butts*x. While there are steps to take to avoid a mess, they’re not always practical for the boy on the go. Condoms allow you a certain freedom that can be a great selling point if you’re cruising the park and don’t want stray spunk on your new polyester shirt’
That’s from:

Now, let’s hear the rollerblading boy’s response to the doctor:

“I was rollerblading on the freeway because the city has provided me with no safe places to skate.”

That uproarious answer is analogous to Mr. Hughes’s comment:

“It is in fact a sad comment that a gay teen put himself in harm’s way because our homophobic society made it so difficult to pursue safe sex with peers.”

I don’t know Veronica, if you aren’t already a teabagger I suspect you would fit right in. You appear to be up on all the right wing talking points, hot off the far right’s blogs and news sites.

In this case Dec 4 and 22 posts on First Things, a religious Right magazine.

But at least you read us for balance right? Because you have an open mind…

In any case the attempt to smear Kevin Jennings, the President Safe Schools appointee, as an advocate of fisting and anonymous sex is, as I said, typical hysterical hyperbole that has come to characterize the radical right in the US.

Don’t you realize that Jennings smeared /himself/?
The “far right blogs” are willing to expose him, but the leftwing sites aren’t.
And you feel the way to defend him is by ad hominem attacks on the “far right” “radical right” “religious right?”  Can’t you just ignore the so-called “smearers” and look at the “Safe Schools Czar” /himself/ and the smutty material that he promotes to schoolchildren?

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