Expert sees cyberspace full of risk, from addictions to child abuse

Expert sees cyberspace full of risk, from addictions to child abuse

Expert sees cyberspace full of risk, from addictions to child abuse

Ethan Gaylord works on the design of a prosthetic hand for underprivileged children. (Credit: Chaz Muth/CNS.)

A leading expert in cyberpsychology has raised concerns about the impact early access to technology could have on child development, including how easy it is for kids to find age-inappropriate sexual content.

ROME – A leading expert in cyberpsychology describes a digital culture today in which children and pre-teens have virtually unfiltered access to online pornography, and she predicts that one day parents who fail to monitor their children’s online activity may be found guilty of criminal child abuse.

“I can see later down the line that parents or caregivers who allow their very young children to be exposed to hardcore pornography on their phone and on their devices …that may be considered, in terms of social welfare and social services, as the active abuse of a child,” said Mary Aiken, Adjunct Associate Professor at University College in Dublin and an Academic Advisor to the European Cyber Crime Centre at Europol for Ireland.

Aiken told Crux the widespread diffusion of sexual content online has been described in some circles as “the ‘pornification’ of society.”

This is a problem for youngsters, because “children are vulnerable to being damaged by what we call legal but age-inappropriate content,” she said, explaining that in the UK, there is currently talk of developing an “A” and “B” internet, where households who actually want porn will have to put their name on a list and sign up for it.

Currently, the exposure of children to pornography is only considered a crime when predators intentionally expose children to hardcore porn as part of the grooming process.

Part of the problem, she said, is an increase in sexual assaults on children by other children, and while there isn’t yet hard evidence to support it, her belief is that it’s related to “the availability of hardcore pornography online.”

Aiken was a keynote speaker at a Nov. 29-Dec. 1 conference on “Drugs and Addictions, an Obstacle to Integral Human Development,” organized by the healthcare section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development.

In addition to substance addiction, the conference touched on what experts are referring to as “new dependencies,” which include addictions to gambling, sex and the internet.

RELATED: Sex, gambling and the internet – Vatican dives into ‘new dependencies’

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s development office, opened by saying addictions to drugs, the internet, gambling and sex, including pornography, “strongly undermine the freedom of the person, which is the fundamental expression of the dignity of every human being.”

Drugs and other dependencies “are a wound inflicted on our society, which traps many people in a spiral of suffering and alienation,” Turkson said, emphasizing the need to reach out to those weak and suffering, helping them to regain hope and take charge of their lives.

Professor Umberto Nizzoli, a member of the National Commission of Experts on Addiction and a professor at the University Institute (IPU), in Italy, said that when people become dependent on something, without it they feel a “continuous hunger” whether it’s an object, a person or a behavior.

The correct term for those who become dependent, he said, is not “addict,” but “slave,” because they lose control on both a biological and psychological level.

Noriko Tanaka, president of the Japanese “Society Concerned About Gambling Addiction,” is a recovering gambling addict whose father and grandfather both suffered from the same condition. After rebuilding her life, she converted to Catholicism and wants to raise awareness of the dangers of gambling.

Speaking at the conference, Tanaka cited a 2016 study finding that 58 percent of the world’s slot machines are in Japan, leading to an “abnormally high rate” of gamblers and addicts. She urged greater education and government support for recovery, especially in Japan, where there is still a stigma surrounding gambling.

“No matter what country you’re in, no one should suffer alone,” she said, adding that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.”

Doctor Peter C. Kleponis, a licensed Clinical Therapist and Assistant Director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, spoke about increases in sex and pornography addiction.

Kleponis said it can take many forms, from strip clubs to porn and fetishes, but it usually begins with pornography. The porn industry rakes in about $100 billion annually, he said, with $13 billion from the U.S. alone, putting its total profits higher than Apple or Amazon.

Kleponis said there are currently some 4.2 million porn sites in the world, 60 million daily requests, 4.5 million daily emails, and around 100,000 child porn websites. Yet these are likely “gross underestimates,” since it’s nearly impossible to monitor the deep and dark webs.

Though porn addiction is primarily a man’s problem, with some 20 percent of men accessing porn sites at work, around one third of visitors to porn sites are now women, meaning “it’s not just a men’s issue anymore.”

Entry points are television, cable, movies, social media and, most commonly, the internet, meaning children as young as nine or ten with smartphones have almost immediate access to explicit content, and predators have instantaneous access to children.

Kleponis said porn addiction is just as addictive as other drugs due to the chemical impact it has on the brain. After a while, the body gets used to the pleasure signals and begins to crave them, and eventually it “hijacks the brain,” he said, adding that porn addiction is often a coping mechanism to hide emotional pain.

Kleponis said the industry has a devastating impact on marriage and the family, with some 56 percent of all divorces being related to pornography. When women discover that their husbands have an addiction, some experience symptoms similar to PTSD, feeling ashamed and unworthy.

When it comes to children, the average age at which they’re exposed to hardcore porn is eight, with most porn being viewed during school hours. France recently banned smartphones in schools and Kleponis gave it kudos, saying “they’re really protecting their children.”

Aiken also spoke about internet addiction, saying that while there are many benefits to technology, there’s not much research on risks. After getting a degree in psychology, Aiken decided to study cyberpsychology in the 1990s. She also studied cybercrime, and, she said, “believe me, I’m kept very busy.”

With just 1 percent of the internet used for basic search engine requests, the other 99 percent happens in the “deep web” and the “dark web,” Aiken said, noting that it’s easy for children to access both.

Although people are spending longer periods of time connected to devices, there’s still no clinical definition of “internet addiction” which presents “a major psychological challenge,” especially in terms of treatment, she said.

In her comments to Crux, Aiken said the internet “is like a giant slot machine, and every now and then you get a great text, a great comment, a great post, and that’s far more addictive than if every comment were good or bad.”

“It’s this sort of slot machine effect that hooks us,” she said. The problem, she added, is that phones and other devices are “designed to be addictive, and social media platforms, social tech platforms, are designed to be addictive.”

She warned that as a society, “we’re adopting each new emerging technology with the collective wisdom of lemmings,” cautioning that “technology will only mean progress when we can mitigate its most harmful effects.”

Aiken said there are guidelines for parents on other stages of development, marking approximately what age a child should sit up, crawl, or say their first words, yet there’s no equivalent for when they should access technology.

“Many famous Silicon Valley developers don’t allow their children to engage technology at a young age. What do they know the rest of the world doesn’t?” she asked.

In her speech, Aiken also warned about the impact of technology on bonding, saying that on average, an adult picks up their phone 200 times a day and touches it 2,500 times a day.

“That’s 200 times you’re not looking at your child, and 2,500 times you don’t touch your child,” she said, recalling how on a train she once saw a mother breast-feeding her infant, and for the entire 30 minutes she was looking at her phone while the baby looked at the mother.

“That’s catastrophic for us as a species,” she said. “There are no studies that do not support eye contact with infants…this is catastrophic from a developmental perspective.”

Too much screen-time can also damage a child’s development, Aiken said, noting how brain patterns change when a person is online.

Citing a study monitoring the effects of internet activity on behavior, she said there’s been a 70 percent increase in anxiety and depression among children and teens. Poor concentration, depression and sleeping disorders are common, along with a rapid increase in cyberbullying, sextortion and graphic content online, as well as websites promoting suicide, eating disorders and hard-core pornography, all of which are easily accessible to young people.

Dr. Gilberto Gerra, Chief of Drug Prevention and Health Branch and the Division for Operations of the U.N. Office against Drugs and Crime, said religious convictions can help.

Faith and spiritual attitudes, he said, “can improve the response to treatment.”

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