Are School Libraries Unintentionally Providing Middle Schoolers Access To Porn?

07/31/2017 10:31 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2017

No.

Or at least not exactly.

See, I’m getting used to “clickbait” headlines. But this is a real story. A recent controversy has erupted in Colorado, where a few parents are concerned that academic databases available to children in middle school may provide them a roundabout access to some porn sites. What exactly is going on, and is YOUR child downloading porn while at school? (See, I’m getting better at this!)

The issue revolves around academic search engines such as EBSCO. Folks who work in academia will recognize EBSCO as a widely used database that searches through zillions of dusty academic tomes for exactly the research article they’re looking for. Need some research regarding the bacteria that live in the gut of an earthworm? Or articles examining the impact the price of wheat had on romance poetry in 14th century Croatia? EBSCO is the place to go. Most scholars will be stunned to discover EBSCO holds a treasure trove of pornography and perhaps wonder how they’ve been using EBSCO wrong all these years.

However, the databases that EBSCO provides for youngsters are different from those for academics, including a fair number of easier-to-read periodicals that likely contain interesting educational material on various topics. Once again, there seem to be zillions of such articles, most of which are presumably databased by computer algorithm.

The news story on the controversy seemed maddeningly short on clear details on exactly what was discoverable via EBSCO. The descriptions seemed to indicate articles of the “How to Please Your Partner” sort... not exactly meant for middle schoolers, sure, but not exactly porn either. The controversy has involved the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE; formerly Morality in Media), a group that appears to be mainly dedicated to opposing the existence of pornography at all, anywhere. I reached out to the NCSE on this issue for more clarity but, as of this writing, my email has not been returned. However, the NCSE has some helpful videos documenting what EBSCO provides related to porn such as this one.

Basically, type in a search term such as “sex education,” hunt through the links provided and at least a few of these take you to those “How to Please Your Partner”-type articles. The one shown in the NCSE link is more of a “Spicy Videos to Share with Your Partner” type article... again, not meant for 11- to 14-year-olds, but not porn per se, either. However, this article does provide links to webpages where videos could be ordered. Here the NCSE link gets vague again... the narrator spends some time worrying over “Fisting Day” (apparently there’s a “day” for just about everything), though presumably Little Jimmy’s parents would notice if he started sporting the t-shirt he could order from the site. As for the sex videos themselves, it wasn’t clear if they were kept behind a paywall.

Another key issue is that there’s a distinction between accessing these databases in school or from home (the NCSE video appears to be of the latter variety). Most schools have internet filters that block sexual content (even, often, legitimate sex education sites). Thus, even were EBSCO to pull up some adult-themed sexual content, the school’s filters would block it anyway. So accessing porn via EBSCO in schools seems unlikely. But accessing the databases remotely from home, it’s incumbent upon parents to provide the internet filtering software. Presumably parents who are really worried about this issue could do so easily. This rather easy fix doesn’t seem to have figured prominently in the news coverage.

So, on one hand, EBSCO may occasionally provide access to articles that were written with adult audiences in mind and these, in turn, may provide information about how to access more explicit material (some of which may be behind paywalls.) On the other hand, this seems like a remarkably inefficient way to access porn, give how much easier real porn would be to access with a simple Google search. The generous interpretation of this situation is that any academic database sifting through zillions of publicly available articles is going to let a few naughty ones slip by. Eagle-eyed staff or parents could point these out and EBSCO could remove them with little need for fuss.

One reasonable question is how often youth actually are using EBSCO to access pornographic material. That doesn’t appear to be well documented in this story. I spoke to a representative of the American Library Association who indicated that they hadn’t heard very many complaints about this from parents. Most of the controversy appears to be between a few parents in Colorado, along with the NCES, and local school boards. Concerns expressed appear to be not limited just to pornography, but also material expressing support for LGBT communities.

The parents and NCSE have a fair point that large databases sometimes let inappropriate material for youngsters slip through and it’s reasonable to ask such material be specifically reviewed. But this also appears to be a classic Tempest in a Teacup related to a larger culture war on sexuality, sexual lifestyles and censorship. It seems doubtful that EBSCO is a common route through which teens access pornography. Further, NCSE material on pornography grossly exaggerates the supposed harmful effects of porn, which are controversial at best. I get wary of groups that provide one-sided documentation of their concerns. There’s also the issue of who gets to decide what is “appropriate” for children of a certain age. I’m worried the NCSE is picking at some low-hanging fruit as part of a larger censorship agenda. As the parent of a middle schooler myself, I’m very uncomfortable with a group like the NCSE censoring school libraries supposedly on my behalf.

Ultimately, this issue does appear to me to be yet another attack on public and school libraries. Libraries still face repeated efforts to ban various books from their shelves, supposedly because such books are obscene or offensive to some individuals. The American Library Association promotes a yearly Banned Books Week to draw attention to this issue. Books from the Harry Potter series, through The Hunger Games, and Tango Makes Three (a children’s book about two male penguins who raise a chick together) have been “challenged” in libraries across the country. (The Bible even made onto 2015’s top 10 list of challenged books.) Dubious and ungenerous attempts to smear school libraries as smut peddlers seem to be part of a larger effort to weaken librarians as guardians of free expression. A few unintentional adult-themed materials in the school EBSCO database are not ideal. But giving power to groups like the NCSE to decide what’s appropriate to censor in schools seems far worse to me.

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