Inquiry into Age Verification Submission

Inquiry into Age Verification Submission

Thank you for providing the opportunity to comment on age verification as a mechanism to protect minors from accessing harmful pornographic material online.

Thank you for providing the opportunity to comment on age verification as a mechanism to protect minors from accessing harmful pornographic material online.

I support the introduction of an online pornography age verification system in Australia as a means of ensuring that only Internet users aged 18 years and over can access pornographic websites.

Evidence on the harmful impacts of exposure to pornography early in life

A 2017 report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (Armstrong, El-Murr & Latham, 2017) canvassed a wide range of research literature that found:

  • 44% of children aged between 9 and 16 experience regular exposure to sexual images;
  • Exposure to pornography can lead to unsafe sexual health practices, as well as a strengthening of misogynistic and/or sexually aggressive attitudes toward women;
  • An increased likelihood that young people who have consumed pornography, particularly violent pornography, perpetrating sexual harassment, sexual coercion and sexual violence; and
  • A negative impact on mental health and well-being among children exposed to pornography, particularly among younger children (aged 9-12).

The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee (2016) previously conducted an inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet. The Committee found that with young people’s growing, widespread access to digital platforms, often outside of adult supervision, accidental exposure of children to pornographic material, especially violent and extreme pornography, is of increasing concern.

The Committee stated 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”.

One disturbing issue highlighted by submitters to the inquiry was the prevalence of young children who have been exposed to pornography committing sexual abuse against other children in schools, kindergartens and child care settings. The late Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs AO, a pioneer in the field of child protection, cited a litany of attacks by children on their classmates, and stated the only explanations for these attacks was children repeating sexual abuse they themselves have experienced, or children repeating sexual acts they have observed via pornographic material or in their home environment.

A 2016 study by the University of Melbourne similarly found a direct link between young people who have been sexual abusers and the consumption of pornography (Trounson, 2016).

A research report by Bravehearts (2017) cited research showing that children, pre-teens and teenagers are being exposed to and accessing pornography at exceptionally high rates, with lasting impacts on their sexual attitudes and behaviours, including in some cases an increase in the likelihood of young people committing sexual crimes.

These reports are only a fraction of the growing body of national and international evidence that has shown children and young people who view pornographic material are at risk of impaired social development, mental health and psychological development.

The flow-on risk of the early sexualisation of children, and increased child-on-child sexual assault and violence, is just as severe. The former can lead to low self-esteem, life-long problems with body image and eating disorders, and poor emotional and cognitive development, which can manifest in more serious conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, promiscuity and sexual delinquency (Armstrong, El-Murr & Latham, 2017; Bravehearts, 2017).

The latter can present in horrific cases of child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (McClellan, Fitzgerald & Milroy, 2017) highlighted the issue of child-on-child abuse with ten days of public hearings dedicated to problematic or harmful sexual behaviour amongst school children. The hearings presented stories of students perpetrating acts such as attempting to place condoms on younger students through clothing, students fondling other students’ genitals, simulated sexual intercourse, and masturbation and ejaculation onto other students.

In Australia and elsewhere, reports of children presenting with symptoms of acute sexual assault, such as vaginal tearing and anal prolapse, are at record levels. The ABS has revealed that over one in ten Australian adults have experienced childhood abuse, with over half of those people having experienced childhood sexual abuse. The outcomes of childhood sexual assault are pervasive and wide-ranging, and include a significantly higher chance of experiencing partner violence as an adult, psychological or physical impairment, and diminished life satisfaction through lower educational, employment and health outcomes (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019).

Given the direct correlation between early exposure to online pornography and the increased likelihood of involvement in sexual abuse, as victim, perpetrator or both, it is vital to mitigate children and young people’s access to online pornographic material by whatever means available.

Age verification to prevent children and young people’s access to online pornography

The Australian Government has previously introduced a range of measures designed to protect children online. This includes the office of the Australian eSafety Commissioner, established in 2015 to safeguard Australians, especially children, from online harms and promote safer, more positive online experiences.

There is room to improve on these measures to ensure children are more fully protected from online pornography, including introducing an age verification process.  Whilst I acknowledge there are some practical and technical challenges with such a measure, and that there is always the potential that a sophisticated user will be able to ‘work around’ these measures, I suggest that anything that makes it harder for a child to accidentally or deliberately access this harmful material is nevertheless worth developing.

Bravehearts (2017) referred to the lack of a requirement for age verification as a key factor in children and young people’s premature access to online pornography.

Submitters to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee (2016) supported age verification as a method to reduce children’s exposure to online pornography.

At the latest round of Senate Estimates before the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee (Senate, 2019), eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said of the current inquiry:

Age verification has been a technology protection that’s been discussed widely for about 12 years…It’s not a silver bullet technology. It requires a complex set of processes and it’s an ecosystem question.

Inman Grant referred to the recent decision by the UK government to put on hold its attempts to introduce a similar age verification system:

I think we look at the journey they went on. We can learn quite a bit from the things they did well. We can also learn from their mistakes.

Minister for Defence Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds, representing the Minister for Communications the Hon Paul Fletcher, confirmed the inquiry would consider the UK’s attempt to introduce a similar scheme and its decision to postpone the legislation that would have mandated robust age verification checks for Internet users.

Despite the eventual outcome for the UK scheme, there was significant support for the laws. Will Gardner, the CEO of Childnet International, a non-profit dedicated to making the internet safer for children, said:

We hope that the introduction of this age-verification will help in protecting children, making it harder for young people to accidentally come across online pornography, as well as bringing in the same protections that we use offline to protect children from age-restricted goods or services (Childnet International, 2019).

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), the UK’s leading child protection charity, said:

Exposure to pornography can be damaging to young people’s views about sex, body image and healthy relationships, as we regularly hear from children who contact our Childline service. We want to make sure that when these new rules are implemented they are as effective as possible and protect children from coming across sexually explicit content (Belfast Telegraph, 2019).

In response to the Government’s decision to abandon the laws, Tony Stower, NSPCC’s head of child safety and innovation, criticised the decision:

The NSPCC has campaigned for years for laws to protect children from accessing pornography online, because we know that viewing this explicit material can harm their perceptions of sex, body image and healthy relationships. This delay is disappointing, but it is also imperative that the vehicle used to achieve protection for children from pornography is robust and effective (TheJournal.ie, 2019).

Many critics of the UK legislation and similar proposed legislation in Australia take issue with the various ways age verification measures can be circumvented (for instance, via VPNs). Age verification proponents do not argue it is a catch-all solution; neither can age verification be shown to be completely ineffective. Any measure that can raise the age at which young people are exposed to sexual imagery online, shielding them from the deleterious effects of too-early exposure, should be explored.

When the healthy psychological, physical and social development of our children is at stake, we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Conclusion

There is a social and moral imperative to address increasing concerns within the community over children and young people’s access to online pornography.

One measure worth exploring, and which Australian and overseas stakeholders have endorsed, is the introduction of age verification controls to restrict access to online pornographic material.

I acknowledge there are costs and technical difficulties involved in introducing such controls online. However, child safety justifies working through those challenges. We must not take the recent windback of such laws in the UK as a green light to give up on these measures, but as an incentive to learn their lessons and get the details of an Australian framework right. The UK laws did not fail for lack of want or need.

I encourage the Committee to consider supporting an age verification system as a legislated measure that is needed to protect Australian children from the unwanted and harmful effects of exposure to online pornography.

 

Yours sincerely

Senator Amanda Stoker

Senator for Queensland

 

References

Armstrong, A. Quadara, A., El-Murr. A., & Latham, J. (2017). The effects of pornography on children and young people: An evidence scan. Melbourne, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2019). Characteristics and outcomes of childhood abuse. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4906.0~2016~Main%20Features~Characteristics%20and%20Outcomes%20of%20Childhood%20Abuse%20(Feature%20Article)%20~30

Belfast Telegraph. (2019). Pornography age-verification: supporters and critics react. Retrieved from https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/uk/pornography-ageverification-supporters-and-critics-react-38025388.html

Bravehearts Foundation Ltd. (2017). An Overview of Research on the Impact that Viewing Pornography has on Children, Pre-Teens and Teenagers. Retrieved from https://bravehearts.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Research-Report_Overview-of-research-into-the-effects-of-viewing-pornography-on-children....pdf

Childnet International. (2019). Giving young people the platform to talk about pornography. Retrieved from https://www.childnet.com/blog/giving-young-people-the-platform-to-talk-about-pornography-

McClellan, P., Fitzgerald, R., & Milroy, H. (2017). Report of Case Study No. 45: Problematic and harmful sexual behaviours of children in schools. Sydney, Commonwealth of Australia.

Senate Environment and Communications References Committee. (2016). Harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet. Retrieved from https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Onlineaccesstoporn45/Report

Senate Hansard. (2019). Environment and Communications Legislation Committee: Estimates—Tuesday, 22 October 2019. Retrieved from https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/estimate/32f667dc-ad33-4062-95df-f53b5d823b55/toc_pdf/Environment%20and%20Communications%20Legislation%20Committee_2019_10_22_7281.pdf;fileType=application/pdf

TheJournal.ie. (2019). UK ‘porn block’: Government ditches plans to stop children accessing pornography online. Retrieved from https://www.thejournal.ie/uk-government-drops-plans-porn-ban-4854287-Oct2019

Trounson, A. (2016). Pornography: Exhibit A. Retrieved from https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/pornography-exhibit-a