Parents urged to stop ‘sharenting’ as authorities fight to protect Aussie kids from child sexual exploitation

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
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Authorities are warning that ‘sharenting’ - sharing images of children to social media - can attract online predators.
Authorities are warning that ‘sharenting’ - sharing images of children to social media - can attract online predators. Credit: The Nightly

Parents who post photos of their kids on social media are more likely to be approached by paedophiles with new research revealing the real risks of child sexual abuse perpetrators misusing and exploiting personal information shared online.

The Australian Institute of Criminology, in collaboration with the eSafety Commissioner, on Thursday released a report revealing the prevalence of requests for facilitated child sexual exploitation (CSE) online.

The study, by Australia’s national research centre on crime and justice issues, examined requests for facilitated CSE online, and who is most at risk of receiving these requests.

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Of 4011 Australians surveyed, 2.8 per cent had received at least one request for facilitated CSE in the past year.

This included requests for sexual images and questions of a sexual nature about children they knew or offers to pay for sexual images of children.

Requests for facilitated CSE were significantly higher among those who had shared a photo of or information about children publicly online.

The study found ‘sharenting’ puts kids at a higher risk of exploitation and harm from offenders who may groom parents or guardians to create or distribute child sexual abuse material.

Among the respondents who had publicly shared photos of their kids, requests for facilitated CSE were significantly higher among men, younger individuals, linguistically diverse individuals, individuals with a disability, and those who had experienced other sexual or violent harms online.

“With the proliferation of social media, individuals across the globe are increasingly taking to online platforms to share various aspects of their personal lives,” the report said.

“An increasingly common practice is that of ‘sharenting’ — the act of sharing details about parenting and children’s lives online.

“While such practices offer individuals the chance to remain connected with family and friends, among other benefits … sharing personal information and photos of children online may place some children at risk of exploitation and harm.

“Individuals with a range of motivations can take advantage of the information shared by parents about their children online.

“Particularly concerning is the potential for such information and material to be obtained by offenders and used to facilitate child sexual exploitation (CSE) – for example, offenders may groom parents or guardians to create or distribute child sexual abuse material.”

The report’s authors said there was a lack of empirical research into the relationship between sharenting and requests for facilitated CSE.

“There is, however, evidence to suggest that some individuals with pre-existing relationships with children, such as parents or guardians, may be approached online by other adults to facilitate CSE,” the report said.

“Moreover, research suggests that a significant proportion of CSE involves parents or guardians producing and distributing material of their own children or children they have access to.

“This raises the possibility that sharing information regarding one’s access to children online (e.g. posting photos of or information about children), especially on public platforms (e.g. public social media profiles, dating sites), may place individuals at increased risk of receiving requests for facilitated CSE.

“Indeed, CSE is becoming increasingly prevalent on social media and other online platforms.”

Meta – which owns Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – accounted for 93 per cent of 21.7 million CSE reports received by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in 2022.

“There is therefore an urgent need to identify how such material is being obtained, and how and where contact may be established between offenders and facilitators of CSE,” the report said.

“A recent survey revealed that dating apps and websites are one such online platform where requests may be made for facilitated CSE.

“Of 9987 respondents living in Australia, 12.4 per cent had received requests to facilitate the CSE of their own children or children they had access to.”

The new study, released today, aimed to extend this previous research by investigating whether requests to facilitate CSE occur across other online platforms, including social media services.

The research additionally aimed to identify any characteristics or behaviours – namely, sharing photos of or information regarding children online – that may increase the likelihood of receiving requests for facilitated CSE.

The focus of the present study was on adult respondents receiving online requests to facilitate (arrange, assist) the sexual exploitation of children they had access to.

After the report was released, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus also urged parents to limit who they share personal content with online.

“The research highlights the importance of parents being more aware of the potential harms to their child from posting photos and information about children publicly online,” he said.

“No parent would ever hand a photo album of their children to a stranger and the same care should apply to photos posted online.

“Simple measures to protect children include changing privacy settings to ensure photos and information are only shared to friends and family.”

Most social media platforms and dating apps prohibit the posting of material that sexually exploits or could lead to the sexual exploitation of children, but there are no specific provisions regarding the posting of photos or information regarding children in general.

“The Government’s Online Safety Act review is now looking at how we can strengthen our world-leading laws to protect the community from social media harms and ensure industry acts in the best interests of children,” Mr Dreyfus said.

“Anyone who receives an online request to facilitate child sexual exploitation should immediately report the matter to police.

“If you suspect inappropriate behaviour towards children online, please report to the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation.”

Advice and support for parents and carers about how to help protect children online can be found on the ThinkUKnow website, an AFP-led education program designed to prevent online child exploitation.

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