INDIANAPOLIS - When are sexually suggestive images of children simply distasteful, and when do they cross the line into child pornography? It's a gray area of the law that police say is used to exploit children online.
On Sunday, several RTV6 viewers alerted us to a Facebook page titled "Daughters Playground." The page – which carried the subhead "Do you know what YOUR daughters are up to?" – contained dozens of images of young girls in sexually suggestive clothing and poses.
Viewers told RTV6 they had reported the page to Facebook, but that the social media site's administrators declined to remove the page as the images contained no nudity and weren't deemed sexually explicit, and thus didn't violate the terms of service.
It's those criteria which allow sites to legally traffic in images dubbed "child erotica," according to Lt. Charles Cohen, who works with the Indiana State Police's Cybercrime and Investigative Technologies Section.
"This is an example of something that's called child erotica, or child modeling sites," Cohen said. "Unfortunately, it's not illegal. You can actually Google child erotica and find hundreds of sites with pictures like this."
Indiana law makes the production or dissemination of images of sexual conduct with a person younger than 16 years old a Class "C" Felony with a penalty of six to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. Under federal law, a child pornography conviction carries a statutory minimum sentencing of 15 to 30 years in prison for a first-time offender.
The catch, according to Cohen, is in how child pornography is legally defined.
In Indiana, for an image to contain sexual conduct it must show sexual intercourse, deviate sexual conduct, exhibition of uncovered genitals intended to satisfy or arouse sexual desires, sadomasochistic abuse or fondling of or by a child intended to arouse or satisfy sexual desires.
Federal law uses six standard criteria, known as the Dost Test, to determine if an explicit image can be considered pornographic. Those criteria include whether the focal point of the image is a child's genital or pubic area, whether the child is depicted in an unnatural pose or inappropriate attire and whether the image suggests sexual coyness or a willingness to engage in sexual activity.
While child erotica images might meet some of the criteria, they often don't cross the line into pornography, at least by legal standards, according to Cohen.
"I might find it personally objectionable, but it doesn't violate the threshold of federal or state law," he said.
Cohen said sites that publish child erotica often portray themselves as child modeling agencies.
"We see sites set up where it's self-produced material, where the child is taking them and it's ending up in the wild. Some sites portray themselves as a legitimate modeling or art site, even though it's clear in my view that it's intended for the sexual arousal of adults. Some parents will even take their kids to studios and get pictures taken like this," Cohen said. "But, even then, it doesn't meet the definition of child pornography."
Social media sites do typically have policies against publishing explicit images. Facebook, for example, says it has a "strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved." Facebook will also remove photos of children under 13 years old at a parent's request.
Despite those policies, Cohen said, getting child erotica images removed can be a losing battle.
"You can ask [Facebook]to take it down, but many social media sites won't remove them unless they violate a company's terms of service, contain contraband, like child pornography, or there's a court order signed by a judge," Cohen said.
Ultimately, the best prevention against images of your child ending up online is vigilance about what sorts of photos are taken and where they are posted. Once they end up "in the wild," as Cohen said, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to rein them back in.
"Unfortunately, at the end of the day, there's not a lot you can do," Cohen said.
[Author's note: The "Daughters Playground" page was removed from Facebook after numerous RTV6 viewers reported it, although it was unclear whether the page was removed by Facebook or by the page's administrators themselves.]