Plenty of ink has been spilled in the last couple of weeks as the Internet erupted over the latest controversy du jour: a small French independent film called Cuties, hosted on the streaming platform Netflix.
Some defenders of the movie have tried to paint all Cuties’ critics as having bought into baseless conspiracy theories about pedophilia. Others have argued that the critics are overreacting, painting the movie’s content with too broad of a brush, and ignoring the nuances of its intended message.
I’ve written already to refute the notion—not only mistaken, but profoundly wrong-headed and even absurd—that only far-right conspiracy theorists and Internet trolls could take issue with a movie that features young girls watching pornography, discussing oral sex, taking and sharing nude pictures of themselves, and learning how to strip dance.
The makers of Cuties, along with Netflix’s leadership, have responded to the backlash—which included a trending social-media campaign to cancel subscriptions to the streaming service—by insisting that the movie was intended as “a social commentary against the sexualization of young children.”
Regardless of filmmakers’ intentions—laudable if they were to warn viewers about the ways contemporary culture prematurely sexualizes children—depicting actual children in sexually compromising ways contravenes that purpose. One needn’t be prudish or puritanical to object to the movie on those grounds. One need only understand that we oughtn’t do bad things to show how bad they are.
Netflix seems unlikely to remove Cuties from its site anytime soon, despite widespread condemnation from American viewers, but the controversy has been valuable and clarifying in many ways. For one thing, it has been encouraging to see that there are still some lines that a huge number of Americans don’t want their entertainment to cross, even in the realm of sexuality—where our culture is largely unhinged and frankly senseless.
Meanwhile, the debate over the movie has offered an occasion to reflect on how today’s younger generations are growing up with omnipresent technology, providing access to a nearly unlimited universe of addictive, damaging, and sometimes dangerous content.
A 2018 Pew Research Report poll found that 45 percent of teenagers in the U.S. said they use the Internet “almost constantly,” 44 percent said they go online several times a day, and a whopping 95 percent said they either own or have regular access to a smartphone. In 2016, a Common Sense Media survey reported that one out of every two U.S. teenagers said they feel addicted to their phones, and nearly 80 percent said they check their devices at least hourly.
And it’s not just teenagers: A 2012 survey found that about 60 percent of children in the U.S. between the ages of eight to twelve had cellphones, a percentage that almost certainly has increased over the last decade.
While laptops and smartphones aren’t inherently problematic, they carry significant risk of overuse, addiction, damage to mental health, and exposure to harmful or dangerous content — even for adults, but especially for children and teenagers. An increasing number of studies have found, for instance, that social-media use by minors is linked to a greater risk for depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidality.
The average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography, meanwhile, seems to fall somewhere between eight and eleven years old, though many report being much younger. Nearly 40 percent of all teenagers report having posted or sent sexually suggestive messages, 22 percent of teen girls report having sent semi-nude or nude photos, and 15 percent of all teens who have done so say they sent the photos to someone on the Internet whom they’ve never met.
Of course, Cuties isn’t responsible for these frightening statistics, and in spite of its troubling content, perhaps its creators view the movie as a sincere effort to draw attention to a growing problem. Regardless of where each of us comes down on that question, we ought to make a habit of seriously considering and discussing these startling realities, not only as a culture — in a non-combative, non-partisan way — but also, and more important, in our schools, our churches, and our homes.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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