Taking Another Look At That "Ambush Porn" Story

(AP / CBS)
Last night, the "Evening News" ran a story, "ambush pornography," which discussed how children are "bombarded with online porn" that they do not seek out.

According to a new study from the University of New Hampshire, CBS News technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg noted, 34 percent of kids between 10 and 17 have inadvertently viewed pornography online. Sieberg went on to talk about how, according to experts such as Parry Aftab of wiredsafety.org, "it's critical to have candid discussions in the classroom and the living room."

I have no doubt that kids sometimes accidentally view online pornography, and Aftab's advice is probably sound. But I think it's worth looking a little more closely at this story, which has gotten major play in many media outlets.

In any study in which people are reporting on their own habits, the information is going to be unreliable. In this study, which was conducted via telephone, that problem is magnified because of both the age of the participants and the subject matter discussed. The researchers admit as much: They told Bloomberg that some kids may have "characterized exposure incidents as unwanted because they were embarrassed to admit they sought out such material." In other words, that 34 percent figure should be viewed with skepticism.

And consider the "ambush porn" story from a common sense perspective. If you're reading this, you presumably spend a decent amount of time online. Are you constantly being "bombarded" with unwanted pornography? I'm not.

That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. As Sieberg pointed out in the story, spelling "google" wrong can lead you to a porn site. But in my experience, one is unlikely to be hit with pornographic images in the course of a typical online experience. The default search setting on Google is a "safesearch," which filters explicit images. And most kids, having grown up with the Internet, are much more Web savvy than their parents. They are relatively knowledgeable about how to avoid ads — pornographic or otherwise — that they don't want to see.

So why is the study getting so much attention? Because it fits into a classic news template: The your-children-are-in-peril story. Journalists know that people pay attention to stories about threats to their kids — they tap into a primal drive to protect one's children from potential harm. And so news outlets jump all over stories like this, even though a closer look suggests that there may not be as much to worry about as the headlines suggest.

That doesn't mean that there aren't reasons to be concerned about kids' exposure to pornography. But the media should be careful not to sensationalize these kinds of topics, which can lead news consumers, especially those unfamiliar with the Internet, to fear the worst about what awaits online.

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