Tumblr’s ‘porn ban’ can help teach kids about online safety

PETALING JAYA: A United Nations body, a reproductive health group, and a mental health expert have called for more proactive solutions to keep youngsters safe while on the internet, with access to porn on the rise.

This follows a decision last week by popular microblogging and social networking site Tumblr to ban sexually explicit content and nudity from its platform effective Dec 17.

The decision was met with outrage across the globe.

While acknowledging that the move by Tumblr to ban porn “may not be 100% foolproof” in protecting children online, Sarah Norton-Staal, a United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) child protection specialist, told FMT that it was nevertheless a “step in the right direction”.

“Working to ensure that children access age-appropriate content and services should be a priority for governments and digital providers,” the Unicef spokesman said in a statement.

Protecting children while online was not about blocking, filtering or tracking, she said, adding that these measures had been proven ineffective when used in isolation. Instead, she said, children need to learn how to make safe choices.

“Children’s safety while online is built by the conversations and trust that we have with them.

“That’s how they develop their life skills and grow their resilience, protecting themselves from sex predators and ensuring their mental health while navigating the online world.

“Our challenge today is to help children be aware of the risks while reaping the benefits that the internet has to offer, by mediating rather than restricting access,” Norton-Staal said.

Norton-Staal welcomed Tumblr’s move to remove child pornography from its website after filters failed to block them, leading to its removal from the Apple App Store in November.

Unicef also lauded the introduction of the Sexual Offences against Children Act 2017 in Malaysia. Norton-Staal said it provided a legal framework for offences like online grooming and accessing or distributing child porn, among others.

Tumblr has been known for allowing porn on its site. In 2016, researchers found that 22% of Tumblr users followed accounts posting porn, although less than 1% were producing such content.

Porn activity on Tumblr ranged from porn curation blogs to pages run by sex workers to support their livelihoods.

GIFs, videos, and images exposing genitalia, along with illustrated sexual acts, will now be prohibited from Tumblr. Art featuring nudity will be permitted, as will nakedness in some photos of public events like political protests.

Tumblr defended the move, saying “anything harmful to minors” had no place on its website, which it once said was a place to “speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey”.

The Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia said studies had shown that youngsters would find alternatives to access porn, especially in Malaysia which regularly makes headlines for its statistics on porn surfing.

Its executive director Syirin Junisya Mohd Ali told FMT that this reflected the lack of open discourse on relationships and sexuality, often a factor in why porn was sought by those who were curious but did not know where to pose their queries.

Syirin said a comprehensive sexual education system was more necessary than ever, with both parents and teachers playing an important role in educating youngsters so that they would have a safe space to talk, rather than rely on porn.

“Where there are open and constructive discussions at home and in the community about healthy relationships and sexual and reproductive health, it eliminates the need for porn.

“Or rather, porn is no longer seen as the ultimate guide to relationships and sexuality.”

She also said with statistics showing high traffic on porn sites from within Malaysia, a study on the behavioural patterns and attitudes of those who often access and find sexually explicit content online was necessary.

“Data gathered will help to provide us with clues and offer solutions and recommendations for a better way to address existing gaps in information which consumers, or young people, are hankering for,” she said.

Clinical psychologist Chua Sook Ning said while more research was needed to fully understand how the consumption of pornography affects one’s mental health, porn also influenced how women were perceived sexually.

“Pornography is a causal factor in sexual beliefs, with pornography consumption leading to feelings of sexual uncertainty, holding sexual permissive attitudes and having unrealistic attitudes about sex.

“Pornography consumption may also affect our relationships. It has been linked to lower satisfaction and lack of commitment to romantic relationships. There is also a consistently shown link between pornography consumption and divorce,” she told FMT.

Chua called for school-based sex education and curriculum revamps, which she said had been proven to reduce risky sexual behaviours and counter negative effects of porn, such as the belief that women enjoy coercive sex.

These should include a diverse group of people in developing the curriculum, assessing the needs of children and youth specific to the local culture, and understanding what are the risks and protective factors, she said.

“It is also important that the educators are aware of the current realities and challenges in their students’ lives and are comfortable discussing these issues,” she added.

“This will help them create a safe, private and social environment for the students to address their concerns and to be able to personalise and internalise the information provided.”

On concerns that regular access to porn would “blur the lines” between right and wrong and normalise instances such as harassment or rape, Chua said evidence of this was not conclusive.

“It is important to distinguish the type of pornography that is associated with violent attitudes. In general, violent media has been linked to increase in aggression and normalisation and acceptance of violence.

“However, as before, there is no causal link from pornography watching to actual sexual violence, due to the limitations of lab research.”