SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature took a step toward regulating sexually explicit images, acknowledging that such images may cause long-term harm to unsuspecting viewers.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved a joint resolution on the matter Monday that "recognizes the strong negative impact of gateway pornography on brain development in children, and urges parents and concerned citizens to consider ways to mitigate its effects," according to the proposed legislation.
A Utah mom brought the issue to lawmakers after spending years poring over varous scholarly journal articles and other materials regarding the perceived effects pornography might have on the developing minds of young children.
And she's not talking about the plentiful and easily accessed videos, images and other material available through various electronic mediums.
As her four sons started getting older, Dr. Jennifer Brown, a part-time Layton dentist, started noticing, more and more, the seemingly harmless images contained on advertisements that come through the mail or are posted on billboards and are sometimes difficult to avoid.
"Even with my science background, I was surprised at the impact this environment that we've created as a society can have on our children," the Bountiful mom said. "Not only does it make it more difficult for children to not view others as objects, but it goes much deeper than that."
Brown wants the state to tighten laws on what and how much of the naked human body can be shown in widespread advertisements and other prevalent media. She said the resolution is only the first step.
SJR15, which received a favorable recommendation from the Senate committee Monday, is setting the stage to do just that, as sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said soft-core pornography has become more prevalent over the years.
"We can all agree that pornography is harmful to children," he said.
Weiler said the proposed legislation calls for recognition and increased awareness of the issue, encouraging families and businesses in Utah to protect children from the potentially lifelong impact the array of available images can have on the future population.
He said the evidence of developmental harm to children that was presented by Brown is new to him, but worth digesting in order to lay the groundwork for future legislation that may include penalties for businesses that don't comply. The resolution was initially intended to be a bill, but ran into opposition because of First Amendment concerns.
"In our country, we have our First Amendment rights," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. "In some cases, they've gone too far," adding that a trip to Australia showed him that nations can take a stand against harmful materials.
"Other countries have stepped up to the plate. … In the future, maybe we will, too," he said.
Pamela Atkinson, a well-known advocate for Utah's homeless and a representative of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, said she's not sure people in Utah know how prevalent pornography has become in the state.
"I am concerned," Atkinson said. "Teachers are telling me that fourth- and fifth-graders are using terminology indicative of them viewing pornography."
Brown said she tries to shield her four young boys, ages 7, 5, 3 and 1, from "indecent exposure," limiting shopping trips to the local malls, and frequenting only establishments that have agreed to block certain magazine covers from unintended viewers.
"There's only so much you can do as a mother," she said, adding that she believes children should be raised in an environment where they have the best potential for brain development.
Brown's fact-finding mission revealed to her that exposure to sexually explicit images at a young age causes a child's brain to release various hormones and neurotransmitter compounds in excess. Such a physiologic reaction, she said, can lead to decreased functioning within the brain, including the portions that regulate self control, moral judgment, emotions, analysis of various situations and goal-setting abilities.
High levels of specific compounds in the brain can inhibit proper functioning and make a person react more primitively and compulsively, with increased violence and aggression, and are more likely to engage in addictive behaviors, Brown told lawmakers.
"I want them to be offended by it. I want them to turn away and not embrace it," she said.
Instead of exposure, Brown aims to educate her children about the harms she believes pornography can cause.
"I want them to know it is their choice to walk away from it," she said.
The resolution will now make its way to the full Senate body for a vote.
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