Tuesday, 31 August 2021
I rise to talk about an uncomfortable but important subject. It's the harm that exposure to pornography is doing to our children. When a committee of this parliament examined the issue, it found that with young people's growing and widespread access to digital platforms, often outside adult supervision, the exposure of children to violent and extreme pornography was a matter of great concern.
The number of adults who testify to the life-destroying harm of the unrealistic portrayals they see in pornography is large and growing, but, for the developing minds of primary-schoolers and teenagers, the facts are plain disturbing. There is a large and growing body of national and international evidence that shows children and young people who view porn suffer impaired social development, damaged mental health and stunted psychological development. The flow-on impact of the early sexualisation of children and the increase in child-on-child sexual assault and violence is just as severe. The former can lead to low self-esteem, lifelong problems of body image, eating disorders and poor emotional and cognitive development. They manifest in more serious conditions like depression, anxiety, promiscuity and sexual delinquency.
We can't deny this stuff has real consequences. Teachers report primary-schoolers attempting what can only be described as sexually abusive acts on one another as they mimic what they've seen in pornography. High-school girls speak with embarrassment about the pressure they face to engage in acts and to provide explicit images and videos. The consequences are seen in the injuries with which adolescents in particular present in our emergency rooms—everything from the impacts of choking through to tearing and prolapse.
Pornography damages children. It warps their perception of healthy interactions with one another, their expectations and their own relationships as they grow. It teaches a destructive, depersonalised, violent and frequently degrading view of sexuality and it corrupts the notion of consent. At a time when we've never been more aware of the harms of domestic violence, when we have never invested more public money in combating intimate partner violence, why are so few people willing to confront, frankly, the connection that exists with pornography? The testimony of those working at the frontline of domestic violence services shows the truth. Di McLeod, who's a director of a DV centre on the Gold Coast, puts it this way:
In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape … The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality … oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent. …
That's the edited, less traumatic version of her quote.
Adults should be able to make their own decisions about whether they access pornography, but children simply don't have the capacity to deal with this kind of content. Some people say parents should supervise better, and to an extent that's true, but it's hard to watch them all the time, particularly in the era of mobile phones and tablets. But there are things we can do. We can explore verification of whether a person is 18 before they access this stuff. It is a sensitive issue, though, because I expect adult users would be uncomfortable with the idea, albeit false, that the government is collecting a list of porn users.
Age verification could be done without requiring a big government database, much like when you buy something from Dan Murphy's, but the international experience of implementing a system of this kind is that it can be technically complex, particularly given many of these websites aren't based in Australia. We should learn from the experience of the UK struggling to implement this.
But there's another option: we could require internet service providers to offer filtering of explicit content to their customers. It's a solution that empowers parents, respects the freedom of adults and doesn't require a complex regulatory scheme. Something like this is now in place in the UK and up to 40 per cent of customers, depending on the ISP, have chosen to opt in. Importantly, it's not a mandatory filter of the kind suggested by Senator Conroy some years ago; it must be voluntary for it to fairly balance the important objective of protecting children with the rights and freedoms of adults. I encourage the industry to step up and do what's needed to protect our children from this evil material.
Senate adjourned at 19:55