Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Effects of Child Pornography

Effects on the Children Portrayed

The vast majority of children who appear in child pornography have not been abducted or physically forced to participate. [32] In most cases they know the producer—it may even be their father—and are manipulated into taking part by more subtle means. Nevertheless, to be the subject of child pornography can have devastating physical, social, and psychological effects on children.[33]

The children portrayed in child pornography are first victimized when their abuse is perpetrated and recorded. They are further victimized each time that record is accessed. In one study,[34] 100 victims of child pornography were interviewed about the effects of their exploitation—at the time it occurred and in later years. Referring to when the abuse was taking place, victims described the physical pain (e.g., around the genitals), accompanying somatic symptoms (such as headaches, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness), and feelings of psychological distress (emotional isolation, anxiety, and fear). However, most also felt a pressure to cooperate with the offender and not to disclose the offense, both out of loyalty to the offender and a sense of shame about their own behavior. Only five cases were ultimately reported to authorities. In later years, the victims reported that initial feelings of shame and anxiety did not fade but intensified to feelings of deep despair, worthlessness, and hopelessness. Their experience had provided them with a distorted model of sexuality, and many had particular difficulties in establishing and maintaining healthy emotional and sexual relationships.

Effects on Users

The effects of pornography on users have been extensively researched but results are contentious. There are at least five possible relationships between pornography use and the sexual abuse of children:

  • Pornography use is an expression of existing sexual interests. An individual who sexually abuses children seeks out child pornography as part of his/her pattern of sexual gratification.[35] The offender’s sexual interests cause his/her pornography use rather than the other way around.
  • Pornography is used to prime the individual to offend. An individual deliberately views child pornography immediately prior to offending. Pornography is used in the short term to sexually stimulate the offender in preparation for offending.[36]
  • Pornography has a corrosive effect. An individual becomes increasingly interested in child pornography, is attracted to images of increasing severity, and becomes desensitized to the harm victims experience. Use of pornography in the long term may also increase the risk that the person will sexually abuse a child.[37]
  • Pornography has a cathartic effect. Viewing child pornography is the sole outlet for an individual’s sexual attraction to children. Pornography use may substitute for, or even help the individual resist, engaging in hands-on offending.[38]
  • Pornography is a by-product of pedophilia. Pornography is created in the process of carrying out sexual abuse or is used to groom potential victims and prepare them for abuse.[39] Pornography is incidental to the abuse suffered by the victim.

In all likelihood, the effects of child pornography vary among users, and all of the above relationships may apply depending upon the individual in question.

The Internet and Other Forms of Child Sexual Abuse

In addition to child pornography, the Internet facilitates child sexual abuse in the following ways:

  • It allows networking among child abuse perpetrators. The Internet facilitates a subculture of pedophiles, who may share information and tactics and support each other’s belief systems.[40]
  • It may be used to seek out and groom victims. Perpetrators may enter children’s or teens’ chat rooms under an assumed identity to access and establish relationships with potential victims.[41]
  • It may be used in cyber-stalking. Children may be sexually harassed via the Internet.[42]
  • It may be used to promote child sexual tourism. Information is made available to help individuals locate child-sex tourism operators or to make direct contact with child prostitutes.[43]
  • It may be used in trafficking children. Mail-order children are available over the Internet.[44]

Sources of Digital Evidence

Computers and their associated services retain a considerable amount of evidence of their use. Determined, computer-savvy offenders may take precautions to cover their tracks, but many offenders will have neither the foresight nor the necessary expertise to do so, and will leave a trail of incriminating evidence.[45]

  • The offender’s computer: Downloaded images saved to a computer’s hard drive are the most obvious evidence of pornography use. However, there are also more subtle records that technicians can locate when examining a suspect’s computer. For example, log files show who was logged into the computer and when; modem logs record when a computer was connected to the Internet; Web browser history entries show an offender’s online activity; and e-mail and chat logs reveal online communication with cohorts or potential victims. Note, however, that seizure of a suspect’s computer requires specialized expertise, and, if handled incorrectly, may result in the loss of critical evidence.[46]
  • Hand-held devices: An increasing number of devices contain components of a computer (referred to as embedded computer systems) and can be used in child pornography. These devices include digital cameras, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and mobile phones. For example, digital cameras can be used to record abuse; the files can then be easily uploaded to the Internet. Similarly, in addition to voice conversations between perpetrators, mobile phones increasingly permit the recording, storing, and transmitting of digital images. These devices may have incriminating digital records stored on their memory cards.
  • Servers: Different servers may provide information with which to track pornography use. ISP authentication servers record customer account details against IP addresses (authentication logs), which can then be used to identify users. FTP and web servers used to upload and download electronic files have logs that record users’ IP addresses, what files were accessed, and when. Similarly, e-mail servers retain logs of customer use. Local area network servers may be used to store collections of pornography for personal use. Individuals may use local servers connected to their work computers so that searching a suspect’s work server may reveal hidden collections of pornography.
  • Online activity: Purpose-built or commercially available digger engine software allows law enforcement personnel to monitor online activity and identify the IP addresses of chat room contributors.[47] Although online operations can yield conclusive digital evidence of an offender’s involvement in Internet child pornography activities, officers should be careful not to become overzealous and engage in entrapment.[48]

Challenges in Controlling Internet Child Pornography

Internet child pornography presents some unique challenges for law enforcement agencies. These challenges include:

  • The structure of the Internet: The structure of the Internet makes control of child pornography very difficult. The Internet is a decentralized system with no single controlling agency or storage facility. Because it is a network of networks, even if one pathway is blocked, many alternative pathways can be taken to reach the same destination. Similarly, if one website or newsgroup is closed down, there are many others that can instantaneously take its place. The decentralized nature of the Internet, and resultant difficulties in restricting the distribution of child pornography, is exemplified by P2P networks involving direct connections among computers without the need for a central server.[49] It has been argued that the Internet is the ultimate democratic entity and is essentially ungovernable.
  • The uncertainties of jurisdiction: The Internet is an international communication tool that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. Not only is cooperation among law enforcement agencies necessary to track offenders across jurisdictions, it is required to coordinate resources and avoid duplication of effort.[50] Parallel operations run from different jurisdictions may unknowingly target the same organization or offender. Equally problematic is the issue of who is responsible for investigating child pornography on the Internet when there is no clue as to where the images originate. There is a potential for pornography crimes to go uninvestigated because they do not fall within a particular law enforcement jurisdiction.
  • The lack of regulation: The Internet, by its nature, is difficult to regulate, but many jurisdictions are reluctant to introduce laws that might help control Internet use. There are debates about the appropriate weight to give to the community’s protection on the one hand, and to freedom of speech and commercial interests on the other.[51] There is also legal ambiguity about whether ISPs should be liable for the material they carry (as are television stations) or merely regarded as the conduits for that material (similar to the mail service).[52] The end result is that ISPs’ legal obligations with respect to Internet child pornography are often unclear, and, for the most part, the emphasis has been on self-regulation.[53]
  • The differences in legislation: To the extent that there have been attempts to regulate the Internet, control efforts are hampered by cross-jurisdictional differences in laws and levels of permissiveness regarding child pornography. For example, in the United States a child is defined as someone under 18; in Australia the age is 16.[54]Moreover, countries vary in their commitment to enforce laws and act against offenders, either for cultural reasons or because of corruption.[55]
  • The expertise of offenders: As the typology of Internet offending behavior suggests, offenders vary in the degree to which they employ elaborate security measures to avoid detection.[56] There is a core of veteran offenders, some of whom have been active in pedophile newsgroups for more than 20 years, who possess high levels of technological expertise. Pedophile bulletin boards often contain technical advice from old hands to newcomers. It has been argued that many Internet sting operations succeed only in catching inexperienced, low-level offenders.
  • The sophistication and adaptation of Internet technology: The expertise of offenders is enhanced by the rapid advances in Internet technology. In addition to P2P networks, recent developments include remailers (servers that strip the sender’s identity from e-mail) and file encryption (a method of hiding or scrambling data).[57]A technological race has developed between Internet pornographers and law enforcement agencies.[58]
  • The volume of Internet activity: The sheer amount of traffic in child pornography makes the task of tracking down every person who visits a child pornography site impossible.[59] Many offenders realize that realistically their chances of being caught are quite remote. Similarly, while perhaps worthwhile activities, catching peripheral offenders or disrupting individual networks may have little overall impact on the scale of the problem.