Children and young people growing up today have access to a range of digital
devices and services that provide entertainment, support their education and
creativity, and help facilitate their social communication. Compared to individuals
born earlier in the internet age, it appears that children today are going online
at younger ages and accessing online material more frequently. Children and
young people are expected to be savvy users of digital technologies and are
taught to be digitally literate. Most children and young people are likely
to have positive experiences online.
Accompanying these developments, however, are growing concerns about harm
to children and young children caused by aspects of their online activity,
including concerns about their safety, privacy and the type of content they
access. Digital devices are ubiquitous in society, but in general there are
significant divergences between age groups regarding the use of these devices and
knowledge about popular media platforms. With younger generations eager to
engage with digital technology and often understanding it better than adults,
this presents challenges for the ability of parents, guardians and others in key
roles to supervise the use of these tools. It also challenges existing
government and industry responses that seek to prevent children and young people
from being exposed to certain material. In particular, the classification
regime is less relevant when material that has been or would be refused
classification, or would be subject to restrictions about its distribution, is
freely available online.
Statistics about internet usage demonstrate that pornographic websites
are numerous and popular. It is also clear that there are many ways for
accidental exposure to pornographic content to occur when online. Furthermore,
evidence suggests that, among the range of pornographic material accessible
online, extreme content is widely available. Although pornographic imagery is
not new—indeed it can be traced back to ancient civilisations—the content
readily available now includes violent and shocking material. The widespread
use of digital devices by children and young people, and the increasing amount
of online activity they undertake, is occurring in this environment. Depending
on their age, stage of development and other factors, there are valid concerns
about whether exposure to this material influences the healthy development of
children and young people, particularly with respect to the formation of
respectful relationships and ability to make decisions about sexual activity.
Although some children and young people may not be bothered or affected by this
material, it is likely that many others would be.
There are other matters, however, that should be taken into account.
One, for instance, is the wide range of other sexual-themed content in society to
which children and young people can be exposed. Such content may be present in advertisements,
films, television programs, publications, video games and the lyrics of popular
songs. Some of this material includes violent sexual content and presents other
troubling messages about gender roles and respect for women. There are also
related concerns about the sexualisation of children by advertisers, broadcasters
and manufacturers. Pornography is one source of inappropriate material that may
influence children and young people; however, it is not the only source.
It is also apparent that moral panic about particular media corrupting
youth occurs regularly between generations. Concerns about certain types of
music (over various decades) and the content of video games are some examples.
In addition, it should be noted that concerns about children being exposed to
online pornography are not new; for example, in legislation that was
ultimately found to be unconstitutional, the United States Congress first
attempted to prohibit the 'the knowing transmission over the internet of
obscene or indecent messages to any recipient under 18 years of age' in 1996.
In the twenty years that have followed, the internet has become more prevalent,
yet successive groups of children and young people reached adulthood and enjoy
happy and respectful relationships.
These other considerations do not lessen concerns about the harm
pornography may cause children and young people. Further, the Australian, state
and territory governments have a clear role in enacting laws, developing
policies and showing leadership in efforts to protect and care for children.
This includes ensuring that children:
are not exposed to material they are not capable of dealing with;
have the knowledge and skills necessary to build healthy and
This policy area is complex and involves a topic that is emotive and
makes adults uncomfortable. This provides an impediment to openly discussing
whether a problem exists or the extent of the problem. Unlike many other public
policy issues, there are also clear ethical issues that make it difficult to obtain
the information needed to inform evidence-based responses. It is important,
however, that consideration of this matter continues. Legislators and
policymakers have an obligation to understand more about how children and young
people are being exposed to pornographic material and whether this harms their
development, and if so, to take any effective action that can alleviate such
The committee emphasises that an evidence-based approach must be
pursued. Emotional perspectives and individual accounts of harm have been
presented, including accounts that are deeply distressing, particularly cases
of child-on-child abuse apparently linked to exposure to pornography. However,
the committee cannot endorse particular policy proposals based on a relatively small
number of cases. Proceeding on that basis presents a grave risk of introducing
measures that are poorly‑targeted, otherwise ineffective or
To ensure that an evidence-based approach to this issue can proceed, the
committee considers further research is required in an Australian context. Although
the committee is aware of various studies that have been undertaken, these vary
in the age groups and issues considered. There are considerable ethical
problems associated with researching this topic, which likely explains why evidence
presented to the committee suggests a correlation between exposure to
pornography and harm, but not causation. To the extent possible, further
information needs to be obtained on the number of children and young people in
specific age groups who are exposed to pornographic material. For each age
group, information on the following additional matters would also be of value:
how children and young people are first exposed to this material;
the types of pornographic material to which children and young
people are exposed, and to what extent this includes violent or otherwise
how exposure to this material commonly occurs, including access online
using various devices and distribution from one child or young person to
to what extent the exposure is accidental, deliberate or
following persuasion by, or pressure from, others.
Following this, expert advice can be obtained about the implications of
the results for the healthy sexual development of children and young people at
different ages and different development stages. This expert advice could also
identify whether online pornography is the most pressing problem, or whether
other sources of explicit material are more concerning. A better understanding
of these factors will influence the policy discussion that would follow.
Whether exposure is accidental or deliberate, for example, will likely
influence views on whether a technology-based measure will be effective.
In the committee's view, the next steps are for the Australian
government to commission comprehensive research into the exposure of Australian
children and young people to online pornography and other pornographic
material. Following this, an expert advisory panel should be formed to analyse
the commissioned research, other research that may be available, and to
consider the merits and viability of particular policy proposals.
It is likely that the matters raised will involve both the Commonwealth
and the state and territory governments. For example, concerns about
communications regulation are a matter for the Australian government; however,
education and issues within schools are primarily matters for each state and
territory jurisdiction. Given this, and depending on the findings of the
expert panel, it may be appropriate for the Australian government to convene
either a multi-jurisdictional ministerial council or another forum, such as a
dedicated national summit, to build consensus on whether a problem exists that
warrants government intervention, and if so, the policy options that should be
On a separate matter, after considering evidence received about accounts
of child-on-child sexual abuse in schools, the committee urges state and territory
governments to consider the adequacy of current policies on, and responses to,
allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by children within schools. This should
include the adequacy of child protection training provided to individuals
employed in, or preparing for employment in, roles that could involve children.
The committee recognises that the next steps it has outlined are not as
decisive as some submitters would like. The committee agrees with those
submitters that society has a responsibility to protect children and young
people from harm. Society also needs to ensure that children and young people are
equipped with the skills needed to develop healthy relationships. To ensure
a topic as important as this is addressed properly, however, it is important to
proceed methodically with proposals that are supported by clear evidence. Across
the submissions from key stakeholders, there was broad support for further
research. Commissioning Australian research will provide a firm footing for
further evidence-based policy development, the results of which can be widely
accepted within the community.
The committee recommends that the Australian government commission
dedicated research into the exposure of Australian children and young people to
online pornography and other pornographic material.
Following completion of the research referred to in recommendation 1,
the committee recommends that the Australian government commission an expert
panel to make recommendations to the government regarding possible policy
measures. The panel should include experts in a range of relevant fields,
including child protection, children's online safety, education, law enforcement
and trends in internet usage.
The committee recommends that state and territory governments consider
the adequacy of:
their current policies on, and responses to, allegations of
sexual abuse perpetrated by children within schools; and
the training on child protection matters provided to individuals
employed in, or preparing for employment in, roles that could involve children.
4.18 The committee recommends that the Australian
government consider the adequacy of the information available to parents,
guardians and teachers on how to keep children safe online, including whether
existing resources such as the Office of the eSafety Commissioner's iParent
website can be promoted more effectively.
Senator Larissa Waters
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