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It takes a village: law reform can’t be the only response to online child abuse material

It will take a whole-of-community effort to challenge child abuse material and prevent such sexual violence and abuse before it occurs. shutterstock

It takes a village: law reform can’t be the only response to online child abuse material

The Victorian government introduced legislation this week to deliver on key changes recommended by an in-depth review of the state’s sexual offences.

Among the changes is the replacement of the term “child pornography” with “child abuse material”. This shift in terminology is particularly welcome.

What’s in a name?

It might appear a small change to some. But naming this material to clearly identify the abuse it depicts is important.

Rather than the minimising term “child pornography”, calling these images “child abuse material” makes clear that the images involve child abuse, and that consumers of these images are colluding in child abuse.

However, this shift is not merely semantic. The new laws also extend the definition of child abuse material to include images involving other forms of abuse, regardless of whether or not the image is “sexual”.

This is an important change that brings Victoria into line with several jurisdictions, such as New South Wales, that include depictions of a child as a victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse in their criminal laws.

New forms of sexual exploitation and abuse

The changes will also bring Victoria’s laws up to date with new forms of exploitation and abuse of children and young people that are associated with communications technologies.

A 2015 United Nations study noted the massive uptake of communications technologies is associated with:

  • increased production and availability of child abuse material;

  • increasing levels of violence in such material;

  • younger ages of abused children; and

  • perpetrators more easily hiding their identities and evading detection.

The same study also found that children’s own self images were being used in abuse and exploitation.

Other research has similarly identified children and young people as being coerced into sharing sexual material online, including via photo- and video-sharing tools. Often, such abuse includes exposing children to sexual images, to sexual videos, or to “live camera” sex acts. This serves as a tool in grooming them to share their own content.

Victoria’s new laws will tackle these forms of online abuse too. It will close gaps – for instance, exposing a child to an “indecent act” will include where that act occurs via digital technologies such as Skype or Snapchat.

As Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula said:

We’re giving police the legislative changes they need to deal with offences that are increasingly taking place through modern technologies.

Beyond the criminal law

Yet, if we are serious about challenging child abuse material, we need to think beyond the criminal law as our only approach.

For example, there is a role for a public education campaign associated with these new laws. Raising awareness in the community of the harms of child abuse material – and of how they can report such material to Australian authorities – is an important part of a co-ordinated response.

Family members may also have concerns and do often report the use of child abuse material by a partner or other family member. It is important to encourage family members to report their concerns, and also to support them through what can be a very difficult aftermath of doing so.

Ultimately, we need to encourage bystanders to take action and intervene if they are concerned that someone they know is using child abuse material, or if they discover such material online.

Children and young people are often threatened and intimidated by perpetrators into keeping silent about online sexual abuse, including self-images they may have sent.

Prevention education in schools, such as [respectful relationships](http://www.ourwatch.org.au/What-We-Do/Respectful-Relationships-Education-in-Schools-(Vic) and programs dealing with issues such as online pornography, can engage children and young people in critical conversations, encourage them to establish their own boundaries and to seek help if they’re not comfortable with interactions from others.

It takes a village to raise a child, and it will take a whole-of-community effort to challenge child abuse material and, ultimately, to prevent such sexual violence and abuse.


If you know of someone who has used or is using online child abuse material, you can report this to your local police or the Australian Federal Police. You can report offensive or illegal content you find online to the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner.

For support or advice about someone you know using online child abuse material, you can also contact PartnerSPEAK.org.au.