Online age verification laws are a bet worth making

Seven states adopted legislation last year to require age verification proving that a user is 18 to gain access to pornography sites. In 2024, by some counts, as many as a dozen additional states are considering bills of their own. If successful, this trend would erect a multi-state barrier between children and pornography platforms, a strong position which could potentially support efforts to enact federal legislation as well.

This kind of legislation has broad support among the general public, which recognises that the state routinely age-verifies kids to block them from consuming things that we deem inappropriate for them. But this simple logic is not shared by powerful entrenched interests which seemingly can bear no amount of regulatory protection for kids online.

As lobbyists converge on the US Capitol to protect the right of Big Tech to addict and advertise to children — according to one study, there is one social media lobbyist in Washington per every four members of Congress — they are also flooding the states in an effort to sweep away laws designed to give kids more freedom from pornography and social media sites.


It is necessary to defend these laws from powerful interests that will not take regulation lying down. In October, the New York Times published a story on how the policy ideas of my organisation, the Institute for Family Studies, as well as our close collaborators, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have been "a catalyst for the laws targeting online pornography and social media" across the country. With a few degrees of separation, these bills now being considered are modelled after our work.

This legislation is bipartisan, having been signed into law by Democratic and Republican governors alike. In August 2023, Politico described age verification laws as "perhaps the most bipartisan policy in the country." Our polling among parents confirms this description overwhelmingly. In a national poll we commissioned in late 2022 with YouGov, 86 percent of parents agreed that it is "too easy" for kids to access pornography online. Large majorities of DemocratsRepublicans, and Independents agreed.

The reason so many parents agreed is because pornography is bad for their kids. A conservative estimate of the average age that an adolescent first encounters pornography on their smart devices is 13 years old. Other estimates put the average age far younger.

A child addicted to pornography has more difficulty forming stable relationships and is more likely to suffer from mental health problems. According to a 2020 study of more than 1,000 college students, 17.0, 20.4, and 13.5 percent of students reported severe or extremely severe levels of depression, anxiety and stress, respectively, with compulsive pornography use significantly affecting all three mental health parameters.

Worse, pornography sites are exposing children to moral horrors. In a 2020 exposé on Pornhub in The New York Times, for instance, columnist Nicholas Kristof writes the following:

Its site is infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. A search for "girls under18" (no space) or "14yo" leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren't of children being assaulted, but too many are.


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The porn industry and Big Tech, which also has an interest in this legislation, argue that free speech requires that American adults get their porn without delay, even if that means little kids can get it, too. But the porn industry is actually not about speech. It's about money. As Kristof put it,

[Pornhub] attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. Pornhub rakes in money from almost three billion ad impressions a day. One ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th-most-visited website in the world.

Online porn companies are addicting American kids because addiction keeps children on their platforms, where they can be primed for manipulation by graphic advertisements from third parties.

Critical battle

The solution to this crisis is age verification. It works. In May 2023, a spokesperson for Pornhub told CNN that after Louisiana established its age limit — the very first state in the country to do so — the site's traffic from the state fell by 80 percent. (Pornhub has not released the numbers on how many of those missing users were underage kids, though the findings would be doubtlessly damning).

No age verification system is perfect. Some children will find a way around it — but that never stopped us from age-verifying kids for, say, cigarettes or beer.

The porn industry will argue that these laws will be found unconstitutional, so don't waste your time. There is a strong chance they will ultimately be proved wrong about that. It's true that in 2004, in Ashcroft v. ACLU, the Supreme Court found age verification unconstitutional. But it did so on the grounds that filters were more effective, that users do not come across porn by accident, and that age verification is too burdensome on adult users. In the age of the smartphone and social media, these predicates have been proven spectacularly wrong — and as for the burden on adult users, technological advancement now allows for entirely anonymous age verification.

Still, it's going to be a fight — perhaps all the way to the highest Court in the land. But lawmakers have shown uncharacteristic vigour in support of these laws, and appear prepared for a challenge. I'm not a gambling man, but it's a safe bet that we will see a spate of new laws passed around the country this year, raising questions that will force the consideration of the Supreme Court. And given the full erosion of the factual predicates that undergird the precedents upon which Big Porn relies, there is a real chance that these laws will win.

The conflict being for the hearts and minds of America's children, there can be no higher stakes. Age verification laws are a bet worth taking.

Do you agree that these laws are necessary? Share this piece via the social media buttons above and help raise awareness of this alarming issue.

Michael Toscano is executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.

This article appeared first in Newsweek and has been republished from IFS with the permission of the author.

Image: Pexels


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