Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Failure of the Ad Councils Campaign on On-line Sexual Exploitation - Susannah Orzell

The development of the internet has enabled numerous people to interact with each other across the world using various platforms of communication, varying from emails to live video feeds. While the increase in access to information and communication afforded by the internet can be beneficial to the parties involved, it can also lead to very harmful behavior and actions. One such instance is the online sexual exploitation of children on the internet. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, online sexual exploitation of children includes unsolicited sexual material sent to a child, extrafamilial child sexual molestation, enticement of children for sexual acts, child sex tourism, and involvement in child pornography(1) . At the conclusion to the study done by Wolak et al., the authors approximated that in children 13 to 17 years old, 1 in 7 had received an online sexual solicitation, 1 in 3 had received unwanted sexual material, and 1 in 11 had reported threatening or other offensive behavior(2). Furthermore, some adults have asked minors online to send pornographic pictures of them or to meet in person. The majority of inappropriate instances involving a child do not cause proximate harm to children, however a significant amount of children still sustain physical or psychological damage because of a harmful encounter(3). Early exposure to pornographic material has also demonstrated greater acceptance of sexual permissiveness, sexual activity earlier in life, negative views of women, and rape myths (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

Teenagers are a class particularly susceptible to the risks of using the internet. They are a group that is balanced between childhood and adulthood, where they want the independence afforded to adults but may still behave similarly to children. Rebellion often characterizes the teenage experience, and the internet has become a popular place for teens to explore, express themselves, and assert themselves as independents. In many ways, society has not caught up with the technology of today, and social norms for the cyber world have not been articulated as thoroughly as they have been for the real world. Young children are taught not to talk to strangers, but this is not emphasized online to the extent it is for real life situations. The belief that online encounters with strangers are not as potentially harmful as real life encounters with strangers may cause people to be less inhibited. For teenagers, the internet can be a place to explore their newfound sexuality and act out in ways they do not in real life. However it can also be a place for people of all ages to live vicariously through their online personality or even a hunting ground for perverts and pedophiles looking for vulnerable young people.

Several measures have been taken to reduce online sexual exploitation of children with the hope of eventually eradicating the practice. Legislation such as the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (9) and Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (10) have aided by attempting to shield children from explicit advertisements and allowing authorities more freedom to investigate and prosecute cases of online sexual exploitation, respectively. Additionally, citizens were encouraged to involve themselves in the fight against online sexual exploitation of children with the options developed for computers so that guardians can restrict certain content, and the launch of the CyberTipline in 1998 to field complaints from the public. Several public awareness campaigns are dedicated to educating the public on the threat, dangers, and prevention of online sexual exploitation of children. One of these campaigns, titled "Think! Before You Post" by the Ad Council, is an example of a campaign dedicated to online sexual exploitation issues. It has resources for children and adults, and contains a variety of media that attempts to show the dangers of reckless internet use. Although the campaign has several positive aspects, it is ignorant of several major issues, especially those pertaining to the teenage experience. Unfortunately these issues hurt the campaign and impede the messages it is trying to deliver.

Critique 1: Campaign Uses Fear Tactics

The general aura of many of the campaign PSAs appears to be meant to scare children away from the internet. The Revised Protection Motivation Theory is very similar to the Health Belief Model (11) except that it proposes that fear of adverse outcomes directly influence intent to act (12). It appears as if this campaign is using the Revised Protection Motivation Theory as a major influence for designing their campaign. The main television PSA featured on the website begins with a teen girl who tacks a picture of herself on a school bulletin board. In the picture, she is fully clothed, not making any obscene gestures, and although she is lying on her bed, she is not portrayed in a very provocative light. Eventually, she tries to take the picture off the bulletin board but each time she rips it off the board, it comes right back, and through this mechanism of spontaneously copying itself, the picture is distributed throughout the school. At the end, the PSA has an ominous tone playing as her school mates are seen holding the pictures and whispering to each other. One of the ending lines states “Once you post your imagine online, you can’t take it back. Anyone can see them. Family. Friends. Anyone.” The other TV PSA, entitled "Acronyms," plays music that could be right out of a horror movie.

Online sexual exploitation is a very serious issue that concerns more people as the internet expands in accessibility and in capability for different forms of communication. It has the potential to be mentally damaging and physically damaging as well, especially if the child agrees to meet with a sexual predator in real life. However, while the tone of this campaign reflects the gravity of the issue, it is not an effective way to stop the practice. For many children and teenagers, the internet is very special to them. Possibly for the first time in their lives, they have a relatively private space where they can make decisions for themselves. The PSAs for this campaign threaten this freedom by insinuating that the internet is dangerous and should not be used. Instead of heeding this message, children, teenagers in particular, might act according to the psychological reactance theory, which states that in order to mediate threats against their freedom(s), they may do the proscribed behavior (13).

Critique 2: Ambiguous Messages

The website content and PSA's are not only ominous, they are ambiguous. It is not clear what age group the campaign is tailored for, and it is important to have a distinction since the target audience should relate to the content if the campaign is to be successful. The campaign states it is meant for children and a child is considered anyone who is under 18 years of age, however enormous differences in maturity level exist between an 8 year old and a 15 year old. The campaign should recognize differences like these and then generate age-appropriate material. The campaign seems to be more directed at teenagers since teenagers are featured in the TV advertisements, which is wise since evidence has demonstrated that they are the most at-risk population. However some ambiguities seem to result from the seemingly apparent desire for the campaign to be applicable to all ages. While teenagers are portrayed in the campaign advertisements, some of the tips seem more appropriate for children. Many of the tips emphasize relying on parental supervision for safety and do not promote self efficacy (discussed further in next critique). Parental supervision may be a reasonable suggestion for a child under 10 and is more consistent with the social norms for that age group, but it is not likely to be taken seriously by a teenager.

There are other instances where the campaign seems to target teenagers, but the campaign writers seem to be wary of disclosing even partial truths to its viewers, as if questioning their competency to handle real facts. The main PSA (see description in Critique 1) emphasizes a girl's embarassment over posting a mildly suggestive picture of herself, and then says that anyone can see the picture, including friends and family. The end of the advertisement begs for the answer as to why the girl was so distressed over the somewhat tame picture and why her family and friends are the people that the girl should worry about after she posted the picture, since except in rare cases, friends and family do not pose the same threat as sexual predators to children. While embarassment may serve as a deterent for innapropriate online behavior, it is not what should be emphasized for teenagers. Due to the potentially dangerous repurcussions of teenagers' behavior online and that teenagers are, on average, more mature than younger children, focusing on embarassment instead of the real issue seems like a diluted version of the truth that is meant for a younger, less mature audience. The campaign writers should decide which audience they would like to focus on, and tailor their campaign to the maturity level associated with that age group. Mark Edberg, in his review of social and behavioral theories, proposed that in order for the Transtheoretical and Precaution Adoption Process Models to be successful, the stage at which the target audience is at must be determined(14). The same idea is applicable to this instance, where the stage of the target audience needs to be determined in order to convey the messages of the campaign.

Critique 3: Campaign Makes Unreasonable Requests without Promoting Self-Efficacy

The website for Think! Before you post offers many tips regarding safe internet use. While the advice can be beneficial, many tips are not reasonable and demonstrates the author's lack of awareness for the teenage experience. The home page for the site features a "Caution" column, where viewers can find tips from the authors. The first point states "Use webcams or post photos online only with your parents' and guardians' knowledge and supervision" and the fourth point states "Be careful about posting identity-revealing or sexually provocative photos. Don’t post photos of others — even your friends — without permission from your friends’ parents or guardians." First of all, the campaign assumes the child's parents are reasonable and capable of making good decisions. This assumption may be true for the majority of instances, but the campaign takes a risk by placing much reliance on a party they are not familiar with. Secondly, and most importantly, the campaign assumes that teenagers or even pre-teenagers will be open to letting their parents supervise them in their social realm. While having a parent or guardian supervise teens actions online might be ideal, it is not consistent with typical teenage behavior as predicted by the theory of planned behavior (12). The social norm for teenagers is to rebel against authority figures, not let them into one of their private spaces.

While the recommendations to let parents supervise children on the internet may be related to an idea presented in critique 2 (that the campaign is trying to reach every age group), the campaign still fails in this area because it does not encourage self efficacy to any age group. If anything, it encourages reliance on others to make good decisions for them without educating children why certain situations may be harmful or safe. Even if teenagers would allow guardians to supervise their online activity, it is highly unlikely that the guardian will always be around to protect the teenager from online threats. Internet access is commonplace, and it is unreasonable and inefficient to rely on guardians to keep up with teenagers online activity. Eventually teenagers will grow up to become adults as well, and it is harmful in the long term to not teach them how to behave properly in an online environment. The campaign offers little help to build self efficacy, the belief that a person can accomplish a goal (15). Without building self efficacy, the campaign offers no help to teens seeking autonomy, and does not teach them how to protect themselves for the future.


First and foremost, the amended intervention to the issue of online sexual exploitation should be specifically targeted to a certain audience for greater effectiveness. Currently, the Think! Before You Post campaign is targeting anyone under the age of 18, and this age range is too broad considering the remarkable differences between the age groups. A more effective intervention would have separate campaigns for each age group, each having its own set of messages that have been deemed appropriate and compelling. The main intervention should focus on teenagers, since they make up the majority of youths using the internet (2), and so for the intervention, only teen campaigns will be discussed.

The Think! Before You Post campaign emphasizes sharing youths' online activity with guardians. This is not only a lofty expectation of a teenager, it is inefficient since guardians will not always be around to supervise activity. Two alternatives to constant supervision of online activity that provide a much more long term, sustainable solution are education and ownership. Education will teach youths to build self efficacy skills so that they can learn to protect themselves and make wise decisions online. The campaign should provide useful tips that are appropriate for teens and are not condescending or dictating behavior. Through ownership, youths can maintain their freedom by being able to use the internet without supervision and also protecting themselves online. The internet can be a private place for teens to express themselves and make decisions free of parental influence. For some teens, it may be the place where they have the most freedom. The current campaign threatens this freedom through the use of fear tactics and discouragement of self efficacy. The intervention must recognize this and frame their campaign in a way that shows the threat coming from the actual predators and not from the campaign. The campaign should portray online predators as people who want to invade their space, make them feel uncomfortable in their cyber world, and ultimately take away their freedom through this mechanism. The campaign should also emphasize that what they do online is their responsibility, giving them ownership to their actions. This way, they feel that they have control of and own their own freedom in cyber space.

Defense 1: Branding

The campaign in its current state has nonsensical and unappealing aspects of it because it is not focused enough. Teenagers have different needs and aspirations than younger children, and it is very difficult to have a campaign successfully inspire both these age groups. One option is to have one campaign aimed at an intervention for younger children, and a separate campaign for teens. This way, the campaigns can develop strategies for the two age groups that are appropriate and are clearly understood. Grouping the entire under 18 population together might also hurt the campaign because of the effects of labeling. Youths in their late teens will not likely want to be labeled "children" and subsequently put in the same category as younger children. However, by creating a separate campaign and branding it as a "teen campaign," it will be more appealing to teens. The Truth campaign against youth tobacco use is a strong example of how powerful youth branding can be. From the initiation of the campaign, it was marketed as a youth campaign and portrayed teenagers and young adults rebelling against big tobacco (16). By being more appealing to teens, more youths were inspired by it than previous campaigns. Like previous anti tobacco campaigns, the Think! Before You Post Campaign has some ads that seem meant to instill fear in the viewer. The Truth campaign is different because it markets a message of youth empowerment through rebellion. The online sexual exploitation of children campaigns would be wise to run a similar campaign that markets teen empowerment through safe internet use.

Defense 2: Ownership

The Think! Before You Post shows teens being embarassed because of their behavior online. The campaign would be much improved if it stopped emphasizing embarassment as a major deterent to risky behavior online and instead emphasized the issue in terms of their freedom. Emphasizing ownership of online freedom will compell teens to act more responsibly online because of loss aversion. When people have possession of something, they value it highly and act to maintain it (17). Teens value the freedom that they have highly, and will act against threats of it being taken away similar to psychological reactance theory(13). In this instance, the threat is the online predator, and ownership of actions will allow teens the ability to react in a protective manner.

Defense 3: Education

Self efficacy describes the confidence a person has to act to overcome an obstacle. Higher self efficacy is associated with adopting new behaviors and maintaining behavior (18). Therefore, self efficacy must be promoted among teens in order for them to sucessfully adopt new protective behaviors regarding the internet. The website has many helpful resources educate viewers about the dangers of certain online behaviors. While the site does provide resources for parents too, the site is foremost directed at teens. It presents facts and does not dictate what teens behavior should be, thereby letting teens make educated decisions with the help of these facts. The Truth campaign cited using a similar tactic with great success (16). Other studies call for a more proactive stance where self efficacy is fostered through school computer classes. Wirth et al. state that since parents are on average less technologically advanced compared to their children, external sources of information, like school classes, should be instated to promote ways to educate teens to protect themselves(19).


The internet has been around for a relatively short time, and partially as a result of this, young people make up the majority of users. Many adults are still unfamiliar with the cyber world and do not understand the dangers of using it improperly. Therefore, very few rules have been established regarding online conduct and safety. Given the rebellious and curious nature of teenagers and other children, this has created an issue of safety due to the presence of online sexual predators. Research has shown some of the negative physical and psychological effects of exposure, and an intervention for this issue is clearly warranted. While the ad council’s campaign may prevent some cases of online sexual exploitation, it has many flaws that obstruct any beneficial messages it may have. New interventions should be implemented that appeal to teenagers, emphasize ownership of freedom in cyber space, and promote education to protect youths from online threats.



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19) Wirth, Christina., Rifon, Nora., Larose, Robert. and Lewis, Melissa. "Promoting Teenage Online Safety With an i-Safety Intervention: Enhancing Self-efficacy and Protective Behaviors" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, May 21, 2008 . 2010-03-12

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