Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Bill

Second Reading--Debate Continued

December 2, 2021

Hon. Rosemary Moodie [ - ]

Honourable senators, I am very pleased to rise this afternoon to speak to Bill S-210, An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material.

Thank you to our colleague Senator Miville-Dechêne for proposing this new and improved version of the bill. Thank you for your commitment towards the well-being of our children and youth, and for your sincere desire to see every Canadian child’s right to a healthy and happy life respected.

In fact, this is where I will begin this evening, colleagues — on the topic of children’s rights — because we not only have a moral obligation to protect and care for our children, but as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we have an obligation to safeguard children’s rights to life, survival and development. Although it is often treated as aspirational, we have an obligation to the convention and to its full implementation in Canada.

In this respect, colleagues, we have a specific obligation to protect our children from online harms such as pornography. Indeed, as our colleague Senator Miville-Dechêne shared in her opening speech earlier this week, children and youth being repeatedly exposed to pornography is a public health issue, and the negative impacts are well understood.

A research publication by the Government of Australia — a country that we know as a leader in providing children with the protection to which they are entitled — reported that pornography use can lead to unsafe sexual practices, strengthen attitudes supportive of sexual violence and violence towards women, and negatively impact a young person’s image of themselves or distort their views on what healthy intimate relationships look like. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics adds that exposure to pornography can lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety and violent behaviour.

In this respect, some of the impacts of pornography are felt more acutely by some communities in Canada than by others. In this regard, I will draw from our colleague Senator McCallum, who has encouraged us to consider the specific impacts of legislation on Indigenous women.

A 2014 report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada speaks to how young people’s exposure to pornography can cause them to seek the kind of sex they view online and that this pursuit fuels the trafficking of vulnerable women for the sake of producing explicit content, especially of First Nations women. I know that my colleague Senator McCallum will speak more about this when she addresses this bill.

I want to note, colleagues, that part of the purpose of this legislation is not only to keep children away from negative content on the internet, but to work towards making the internet a safe place and a place where children can use all of its good aspects to learn, grow, and have a voice.

In March of this year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued general comment No. 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.

Paragraph 14 of general comment No. 25 says it well:

Opportunities provided by the digital environment play an increasingly crucial role in children’s development and may be vital for children’s life and survival, especially in situations of crisis. States parties should take all appropriate measures to protect children from risks to their right to life, survival and development. Risks relating to content, contact, conduct and contract encompass, among other things, violent and sexual content . . . .

Paragraph 15 goes on to say:

The use of digital devices should not be harmful . . . . States parties should pay specific attention to the effects of technology in the earliest years of life, when brain plasticity is maximal and the social environment, in particular relationships with parents and caregivers, is crucial to shaping children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. In the early years, precautions may be required, depending on the design, purpose and uses of technologies.

What this means, colleagues, is that there is not just a negative incentive, but also a positive one. Protecting children and youth from exposure to pornography will make the internet a safer place. So in a world where the internet is growing in size and complexity every day, this ought to be a priority for us parliamentarians.

In addition, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 25 clearly endorses the aim of this bill. Paragraph 24 states very clearly that parties should ensure that their laws and policies relating to children address the digital world and that countries should, and I quote again, “implement regulation, industry codes, design standards and action plans accordingly, all of which should be regularly evaluated and updated.”

Paragraph 54 says:

States parties should protect children from harmful and untrustworthy content and ensure that relevant businesses and other providers of digital content develop and implement guidelines to enable children to safely access diverse content, recognizing children’s rights to information and freedom of expression, while protecting them from such harmful material in accordance with their rights and evolving capacities.

Therefore, colleagues, if we are to take a rights-based approach to the question of children and youth exposure to explicit material online, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child sets a clear expectation that countries that are serious, countries that are committed to respecting and protecting the rights of children, will have laws, regulations and other policies to this effect, that are designed to evolve and to change, which is appropriate for an ever-evolving digital environment.

Indeed, this is the kind of approach we should apply to all of our deliberations. It is a valuable and essential step for us to pause and to ask how this will impact kids in our community. How does this interact with the rights that we as a country have committed to protecting?

This is especially important because children do not have a federal accountability officer in Ottawa, as they do in many provinces and territories within Canada and in multiple countries around the world, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France, Sweden and Poland. They do not have somebody solely dedicated to considering their rights, to amplifying their voices and to advocating for their priorities. Until they do, individually and collectively, we as parliamentarians must step up and fill this gap as well as we possibly can. So in this respect, Senator Miville-Dechêne’s bill is an important act of service and care towards children and youth.

Colleagues, thousands of children and youth in our country are exposed to pornography every day and are already dealing or will deal with some of its impacts on their young minds. We have not acted to protect them. This is why this bill matters. We have an opportunity to protect our children where we have long failed to do so, and to uphold their rights to life, survival and development.

As I conclude, I want to state my whole-hearted support for this bill. I hope it passes through our chamber very quickly so it can arrive at the other place and receive their concurrence. But I should suggest that this time our deliberations ought to look a bit different. This time, in some way, shape or form, we must invite substantive and meaningful feedback from Canadian children and youth on this bill, whether or not they support its intentions. Simply put, we can spend our time assuming what they want, or we can invite them to speak for themselves. I am confident this bill will only be strengthened by their voices.

I also hope that this bill is only the beginning of our discussions on the importance of safeguarding the rights and well-being of our children in a digital world.

There is much to do, not only in setting in place the right regulations but also in empowering parents as they look to protect their children and youth, and targeting online hate and misinformation in all of its forms.

I’ll conclude by reminding us that when we pause to think about our kids, we are doing something that is central to our role as legislators. We are thinking about our future, about our economic prospects, about our social well-being, national cohesion and global leadership, all of which are in their hands. By protecting their rights and seeking their well-being, we are setting Canada on track to become the strong, inclusive and beautiful society we aspire to be.

Meegwetch and thank you.

Hon. Julie Miville-Dechêne

Will Senator Moodie take a question?

Senator Moodie [ - ]

I will, thank you.

Senator Miville-Dechêne

First of all, I want to thank you for your speech. Thank you very much for your support and for this idea of consulting children. That’s a very interesting idea, but I want to ask you a question as a pediatrician.

All along, in my research, I have been told to be careful with the research. We don’t have correlation; we only have association between harms and exposure to porn. So it’s not what we call robust research, and on that basis, it’s very difficult to speak about harms scientifically.

I want to hear from you on that because I feel personally that a principle of precaution should be used because we are talking about children. Also, how can we have robust research if we do not put children in front of porn material? This would be obviously ethically unacceptable. So we are blocked in having very strong research on this particular harm. Thank you for trying to answer.

Senator Moodie [ - ]

You have given me a challenge because there is, as you say, no clear research approaches that would lead to a definitive cause and effect.

I would say this: We do have surrogate models that do show us how children’s brains develop in response to various negative triggers. We know a lot about toxic environments and toxic recurrent exposure that children gain early in life and the long-term effects.

There are other surrogates that my colleague Senator Kutcher might be able to share as well, around the development of the brain and behaviour patterns of children who are exposed repeatedly to negative stimuli.

With that in mind, I would extrapolate it to say that although we cannot in any purposeful way expose children to noxious stimuli, such as recurrent exposure to pornography and to sexually explicit materials, in fact, we do have surrogates that suggest that they would behave in the same way and in a very similar way to the outcomes. That’s the best we can do. I know that we do have limitations in this area, but we also know that there are lots of examples where if we modify the exposure that we give children, we can change the outcomes that we see.

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