Children are banned from consuming alcohol and cigarettes, and supposedly porn as well. But psychologists in Germany say explicit content, widely accessible online, is causing major harm to impressionable young people.
According to recent crime statistics released by the German police, 41.1% of those who distribute pornographic content depicting children and teens are themselves minors. Often, they don't even realize they're committing a criminal offense by sharing such content on WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and other online platforms.
The figure has raised the alarm in Germany as to how ingrained pornography is in the everyday lives of young people, and even children.
It's important, however, to make clear a crucial distinction: child and youth pornography shows acts of sexualized violence and the violation of boundaries involving minors. Experts refer to such material as child abuse pictures — producing, distributing and providing access to such material is a criminal offense. Pornography depicting adults, however, is legal. But making such content available to children and youths is also a criminal offense.
While the publication of the statistics have put German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser in an awkward position, the news wasn't a surprise to psychologist and psychotherapist Tabea Freitag. The head of the a media addiction center in Hanover called return calls it the "iceberg phenomenon."
Freitag said those who consume and share child pornography have usually been desensitized by watching hours and hours of legal adult pornography beforehand — even though, according to article 184 of the German criminal code, it's illegal to make such content accessible to anyone under 18.
"On average, children are about 11 years old when they first come into contact with pornography, often because they have their own smartphone and are frequently left alone with their experiences on the internet," she told DW.
"We are witnessing a huge, albeit taboo, abuse crisis in society; exposing children to pornography is a form of sexual abuse. It has a massive impact on their psychosocial and sexual development."
Porn creates a warped image of sex
Freitag said she knew of families in which children had reenacted scenes from pornography to their siblings. She also said that during the COVID pandemic, she received calls from concerned parents and social workers telling her that after months of consuming pornography, girls were offering themselves as sex objects by sending personal pictures and videos to men.
She explained that many girls and young women were experiencing more and more violence in their sexual relationships, and at times felt the huge pressure of expectations.
"Pornography is primarily made for men; experience shows that it changes the way boys perceive girls, with female classmates increasingly being perceived as sexualized objects," said Freitag. "Girls, on the other hand, think they are expected to do certain things that they find really painful or disgusting because they think that is what is expected of them, and they fear they will be seen as prude, or will perhaps lose their relationship."
A January 2023 study by the Children's Commissioner for England found that 47% of respondents aged 16-21"stated that girls 'expect' sex to involve physical aggression," while "a further 42% stated that most girls 'enjoy' acts of sexual aggression."
According to another study conducted in the US, 13% of sexually active girls aged 14 to 17 said they had been choked during sex — and that pornographic material often suggested this was a natural part of sexual activity.
"My younger return colleagues who go out to schools to prevent the consumption of porn tell me that teenagers are grateful someone is finally talking about this," said Freitag. "It's a huge challenge for them, for which they hold no responsibility, and they deserve respect because they are the first generation to grow up with such content so freely available, and to have to deal with it."
Freitag: Media literacy skills not the answer
In view of this alarming situation, some experts are calling for a ban on smartphones for children under 14. Others want to see awareness campaigns on social media, radio and television. And some researchers have advocated for strengthening the media literacy skills of children and young people, so that they are better equipped to deal with online pornography. Freitag, however, said media literacy is not the answer.
"This term is often bandied about when adults don't want to take responsibility for protecting children from content that violates boundaries, that is abusive and traumatic. This puts the entire responsibility on the narrow shoulders of children and said they must learn to reflect on this themselves, protect themselves and accomplish things that even adults can't manage," she said. "It's kind of like teaching 10-year-olds how a car works, and then putting them in the car and letting them drive on the highway."
Freitag doubts children and young people will be better protected from pornographic content in the future. She said the pandemic already showed that the well-being of children is low on the list of priorities. But the main issue for Freitag is that porn remains a taboo subject, and studies show that adults who consume porn more often are less interested in protecting children. She said a good start would be for educational institutions to closely monitor what's happening.
"In schools, the policy is digitalization first — in reality, however, this usually means child protection last. It would be possible and a political decision to oblige suppliers and companies that provide schools with tablets to install filters. The very least would be to take article 184 of the German criminal code seriously, and say we will not introduce any tablets until effective protective filters are installed," she said.
'There has to be age verification' for pornography
Freitag is pinning her hopes on Tobias Schmid, a man she said has for years been almost alone in his fight to stop pornogaphy providers from making violent pornographic content accessible to minors. In this uneven power struggle Schmid, the head of North Rhine-Westphalia's Dusseldorf-based Media Authority, has been able to deal online platforms a serious blow.
The Higher Regional Court of North Rhine-Westphalia has ruled that these platforms do not meet requirements set out by German law to protect children and teenagers. In future, it will no longer be enough for platforms to request that users confirm they are 18 years or older with a single click.
"Pornography itself is not forbidden, but there has to be age verification," said Schmid. "Currently, there's just a button that says, 'Yes, I'm 18.' That's not an age verification system, it's a joke, and of course it's not enough. We know they have had a checking system for a long time, they just need to put it into practice more rigorously."
Forcing platforms to act
Porn platforms are still playing for time, fearing that age verification mechanisms will also scare off adult users. Calling this foot-dragging impertinent and brazen, Schmid said he hoped the court ruling would send a signal that would lead to better protection for children and young people, not only in Germany but throughout Europe.
"With regulators from Luxembourg, Austria, Italy and France, we have asked the European Commission to take action against platforms with the widest reach, the so-called very large online platforms that have more than 45 million users," he said. "It always takes a bit for a process to pick up speed at the beginning, but now it's unstoppable."
Schmid said the move was long overdue, considering that children no longer accessed the internet through computers and under parental supervision but through mobile phones. Almost 90% of 10 to 12-year-olds in Germany now have their own smartphone.
Schmid said there was a growing realization that even the internet, which offers plenty of opportunity but is also a place of hatred, incitement to violence, crime and child pornography, could be subjected to binding rules. In particular, he hopes for two things:
"Firstly, to be able to instruct credit card providers to stop offering their services for such platforms, as already happens with regard to gambling, for example. And secondly, the possibility of serious sanctions such as fines or reduction of profits. Blocking access, which we can already do, deeply encroaches on the fundamental right to media freedom and should remain a last resort for absolute emergencies." (Written by Oliver Pieper)