Written by Annalise Pennisi

Produced for online by Molly Houseman

New figures show a surge in the number of children being cautioned for child exploitation materials, with our laws struggling to keep up with changes in technology.

Nearly half of all Queenslanders being dealt with by the criminal justice system for child exploitation offences, are under the age of 17.

Most of these incidents are related to what is known as sexting, with social media apps such as Snapchat making it easier to share explicit images.

In Queensland, it is illegal to create, send, possess or intend to possess images of someone aged under 18 years old, even if the images are of yourself.

A person can be charged from as young as 10 years old for owning these materials, and it is considered a serious crime.

Bravehearts director of research, Carol Ronken, says sexting is a major issue for teenagers and needs to be addressed more effectively.

“I think it is really disturbing that so many young people are getting caught up with these sensors around child exploitation online,” she says.

“I also think it is probably not surprising as well, we certainly know that sexting is a major issue amongst young people, and I think we need to think about how we deal with it more clearly.”

Ms Ronken says we must ensure we are protecting our children online, but criminalising them is not the way to go.

“We should not be criminalising young people’s behaviours, particularly these types of behaviours that may be considered a perfectly normal way for young people to explore their sexuality and their sexual development,” she says.

Institute of Child Protection Studies director, Professor Daryl Higgins, agrees children exploring their sexuality is nothing new, however, we now have technology which can monitor these behaviours.

“Up until now, sexual exploration and sharing of their own sexual journey has gone on forever with children and young people,” he says.

Dr Higgins says it is a very complex issue, and one we are only just grappling with.

“There are new opportunities and avenues opening up our laws, but also our understanding, particularly between young people, but also in terms of adults understanding,” he says.

Ms Ronken agrees education is necessary in protecting children online, and says it is a natural part of child development to take risks without properly understanding the consequences.

“I think sometimes young people do put themselves in that position of risk because they don’t think through the consequences of what their actions are,” she says.

“I certainly think we need to do much more in terms of educating our kids.”

The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council is reviewing the classification of child exploitation materials for sentencing purposes.