Inappropriate content Will the EU act?
On June 7, 2023, the European Commission published its Communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health. It follows a consultation organized by the Commission at the beginning of 2023 on the theme of mental health. Committed to its fight against pornography, the ECLJ took part in the consultation by addressing the serious consequences of pornography consumption on mental health, particularly that of children and young people. We were not alone, as several organizations also raised this specific issue. Regrettably, the Commission’s document makes no explicit reference to pornography, but it should be noted that the document considers the dangers digital tools pose to the mental health of young people
“Boosting the mental health of children and young people”
The ECLJ is pleased that “[b]oosting the mental health of children and young people” is one of the main objectives stated by the Commission (p. 8-12), which makes a number of alarming observations about the young citizens of the European Union:
Moreover, youth are considered a vulnerable group, not to mention that “children who are victims of sexual exploitation, other crime[s], and abuse, are particularly at risk” (p. 9). The importance of child and youth mental health is recognized, particularly in view of its potential impact on their future lives: “There are instances when children and young people face adversities during some of the most vulnerable and formative years of their lives, which can shape their [physical] health and mental health throughout their entire lifetime” (p. 9).
Confirmation of a link between the use of digital tools and mental health problems in young people
The challenges posed to mental health by the use of digital tools, especially among children and young people, are one of the main issues emerging from the consultation organized by the Commission. It has taken this into account and notes in its introduction that “tablets and smartphones, along with social media platforms and messaging apps, have become integral to their lives, sometimes . . . to the detriment of [their] physical and mental health” (p. 2). More generally, the Commission recognizes that “The digital domain, including at the workplace, brings psychosocial risks significantly affecting people, organisations and economies” (p. 5).
Regarding the mental health of children and young people, the Commission recalls that children can be victims of online crime by stating that they “are affected by different interconnected health, environmental, social and commercial determinants, and also by the consequences of online crimes such as online child sexual abuse” (p. 8). In the end, the Commission gives a clear and balanced view of the influence of digital tools on young people: technology “can have a positive impact on mental health (e.g. by providing access to information, support groups, and therapy services) but it can also affect mental health negatively. A move towards a safer and healthier digital space for children is needed” (p. 8). As a recommendation, “The Commission encourages Member States . . .to address the links between mental health problems and health determinants and [the] use of digital tools.” The Commission also invites the States “to identify children as a priority target group in their national mental health strategies” and to ensure that they “are protected from . . . [the]negative impacts of digital use” (p. 12).
The role of the European Digital Services Act in preventing mental health problems
The ECLJ, in its feedback addressed to the European Commission, recommended that Member States effectively apply the regulations governing digital services, particularly, the Digital Services Act adopted by the EU in October 2022. This text could make it possible to step up the fight against youth exposure to pornography, especially by making the “very large online platforms” (Google, Facebook, etc.) more accountable.
The ECLJ is pleased to note that this text makes extensive reference to this new European legislation. The Commission recognizes the existence of “certain systemic risks stemming from the design or functioning of the service and systems . . . of those services designated as “very large online platforms” or “very large online search engines” under the Digital Services Act. Notably, these platforms “intentionally or unintentionally exploit the weaknesses and inexperience of minors . . . which may cause addictive behaviour” (p. 9). The Commission recognizes the relevance of this text for the protection of mental health, stating that “[t]o remedy the risks related to the use of digital services, including risks related to mental health, the Digital Services Act (DSA) creates a wide set of due diligence obligations applicable to online intermediaries” (p. 4). It adds that “the DSA recognises the specific risks related to serious negative effects on a person’s physical and mental well-being, as well as consequences . . . [to the] physical and mental development of children potentially caused by using these platforms. The largest platforms and search engines, i.e. those having more than 45 million . . . users in the Union, are obliged to assess the systemic risks that their services pose on mental health and adopt measures to mitigate the identified risks” (p. 4).
No explicit reference to the dangers of pornography
The ECLJ regrets, however, that the dangers of consuming pornography are not explicitly mentioned in the communication itself, particularly regarding young people, who increasingly have access to such content, whether accidentally or not. The harmful consequences pornography poses to the mental health of minors are well-established and worrisome, and were expressed by several organizations that took part in the consultation.
Concerning children and young people, the Commission simply states that “a safer and healthier digital space for children . . . includes: protecting them from inappropriate content, . . . a prudent use of social media, addressing online child sexual abuse, . . . with safeguards against . . . excessive screentime; . . . [and] a well-balanced use of gaming, which helps to prevent compulsive use and negative effects on daily life” (p. 8).
However, if we believe that pornography is encompassed by the expressions “inappropriate content” (p. 8) and “disturbing content” (p. 9), then it is regrettable that pornography is not mentioned more explicitly: after all, what goes without saying, is sometimes better when it's said. But it should be noted, that the Communication’s synopsis report contains a specific reference to pornography as one of the harmful effects of social media which two at-risk groups: children and adolescents, must be protected against (p. 6).
The need for prevention and detection of warning signs
The Commission affirms the need for mental health prevention and the detection of warning signs: “Research needs to be strengthened in this area to better recognise early signals of concern” (p. 5). This is particularly true when it comes to children and teenagers facing the dangers of consuming pornography. Some of these dangers include potentially serious consequences, sometimes similar to those of sexual abuse, such as: addiction, depressive symptoms, reduced social integration, inferiority complexes, a distorted view of sexuality, risky sexual behavior, violence between young people, etc.
Thus, “Early intervention can ensure timely support and may prevent further deterioration of wellbeing and mental health, especially among young people. For example, early intervention can be key in recognising and addressing risk factors and signs of various forms of distress people may be experiencing” (p. 6). Concerning children and youth, it is stated that “[p]revention and early interventions by professionals in contact with children, such as teachers, can promote the mental health resilience of children and young people and mitigate potential harms, in particular by giving them a voice” (p. 11).
The Commission announces its intention to take action in this area through a number of initiatives that should be followed up. It intends to “launch a call in 2023 for Member States and stakeholders to submit best practices on mental health promotion, prevention, early detection, and early intervention, via the EU Best Practice Portal;” it also announces that “It will support the development of guidance on early detection and intervention and the screening of vulnerable groups in key settings to be piloted by Member States. The Commission will step up its work on brain research with the launch of new projects, including through the use of digital health data, computing and simulation infrastructures” (p. 6).
Mental health and trafficking in human beings
In its Communication, the Commission addresses the link between mental health and trafficking in human beings, stating that “The physical and sexual violence and threats experienced by victims of trafficking in human beings results in long-term mental health consequences” (p. 13). While this point of view was not addressed in the ECLJ’s feedback to the Commission, the ECLJ is all the more pleased because it validates the ECLJ’s commitment to the fight against the harmful consequences of pornography. Indeed, pornography can be seen as a “hub” for human trafficking. It is also not uncommon for people depicted in pornography to have mental health issues.
In this context, the European Commission also refers to the European Directive of April 5, 2011, on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, recalling that this text “recognises the special needs of victims with mental health problems and provides specialised health services, and long-term recovery and rehabilitation support” (p. 13). Importantly, the revision of this Directive is in progress: as the ECLJ recently pointed out, it is high time to take account of the damage, particularly to mental health, resulting from sexual exploitation for pornography. This can be done by reinstating the explicit reference to this type of exploitation in this text, which was given in the 2002 framework decision but replaced by the current Directive.
 Call for evidence for Commission communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health, Factual summary report, 3.1.4 : https://health.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2023-06/ncd_comprehensive-approach_mental-health_callforevidence_en.pdf
 Voir Mathieu Perreault, « Suicides et dépression chez les actrices pornos : 52 % », La Presse, 16 juin 2012.