Social media must tackle child abuse content: advocates

As many as 200,000 Australians may have deliberately watched child pornography over the last year.

A survey of roughly 13,000 people, released by the Australian Institute of Criminology on Tuesday, found the vast majority of respondents had not come across this kind of content.

However, about five per cent had encountered sexually explicit material of children and though most did so unintentionally, about 101 respondents - 0.8 per cent - had purposefully viewed the content.

Extrapolated to the entire population, hundreds of thousands of Australians may have intentionally watched child pornography.

This is also a conservative estimate as roughly 0.2 per cent of those polled, about 32 people, said they either "don't know" or "prefer to not say" when asked if they had encountered the material by mistake.

Australians who sought out child sexual abuse material were more likely to be younger, have served in the military, have been involved with the criminal justice system, be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, speak other languages, or live with a disability.

Though previous studies have found men are more likely to watch child sexual abuse material, this survey did not find a statistically significant difference between male and female respondents.

However, men who viewed child pornography were more likely to answer that they 'preferred not to say' or 'didn't know' whether they did so intentionally. 

The Australian Institute of Criminology says the most effective way of tackling this issue would be by preventing the distribution of explicit abuse content in the first place.

In October, the eSafety Commissioner said reports of online child abuse material began to spike in 2020 and have since doubled year-on-year.

International Justice Mission Australia's chief advocacy officer Grace Wong says the government must work with international law enforcement and tech companies to prevent the online sexual exploitation of children.

According to a recent IJM report, nearly 500,000 Filipino children were trafficked in 2022 to produce child sexual abuse material for profit, and Australians make up about 1 in 5 viewers.

"Tech companies have a pivotal role to play in proactively stopping content at the source, and detecting and reporting child sexual abuse materials," she said.

The eSafety Commissioner's social media services code came into effect on Saturday and requires platforms to take action against child sexual abuse material.

X, formerly known as Twitter, was fined more than $600,000 by the eSafety Commissioner in October for compliance failures over child sexual exploitation material.

Katrina Lines, CEO of Act for Kids, says the online realm has also provided children with access to pornography and increased sexualised behaviour among young Australians.

Dr Lines suggests monitoring children's online activity by keeping devices in a shared area and implementing search limitations. 

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