Images of children and young people online
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This resource sheet provides information about safety and good practice when images of children and young people are displayed online. It outlines the legal obligations for Internet users who post images of children and young people on the Internet, and some of the emerging issues associated with the displaying of online images by children and young people. Guidance is also provided for supporting children and young people to be safe online.
Throughout this paper, a child or young person refers to a person under the age of 18 years.
The Internet has become a popular communication tool for children and young people, as well as adults, businesses and organisations. There are a range of reasons why people or organisations might wish to publish images of people online, including for recording, documenting and advertising or for promoting an organisation's activities and experiences.
Organisations involved with children and young people, such as sporting and performing arts groups, often include photos or visual recordings of children and young people on their websites to promote their activities or services. Many children and young people also share images of themselves and their friends on social networking websites such as Facebook, and on their own blogs and web pages. The accessibility of the Internet and the increasing popularity of social networking sites for both young people and adults has made the sharing and disseminating of images very easy. This has resulted in concerns about the safety and welfare of children and young people online, and protection of their privacy.
There are laws and classification regulations that should be considered when publishing the image of a child or young person on the Internet.
There are Commonwealth privacy laws relevant to the unauthorised production and publication of a person's image through the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). These laws regulate the publication of personal information that conveys the identity of a person or allows their identity to be determined. Under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)section6, "personal information" refers to:
Information or an opinion (including information or an opinion forming part of a database), whether true or not, and whether recorded in a material form or not, about an individual whose identity is apparent, or can reasonably be ascertained, from the information or opinion.
This means images of children that would enable them to be identified - for example, in a school uniform, outside their house, or showing their name - should not be published on the Internet without the consent of both the child and their parent or guardian. Establishing protocols for obtaining parental/guardian and child consent is good practice regardless of whether or not images contain identifying information about the child or young person.
An example of how consent might be obtained would be for the publisher to have a standard consent form available for a parent or guardian to sign. The form should explain the reasons for acquiring and displaying the image and how the visual material will be published.
It is good practice to also seek the child or young person's consent to ensure that their privacy is not breached. Although the Privacy Act does not stipulate an age when a child or young person can make decisions about their own personal information, there are precedents that support the capacity of young people to make decisions about their personal information, such as the ability of young people to obtain their own Medicare card from 15 years of age (Australian Law Reform Commission, 2008). Furthermore, the United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises the right of children to freedom from interference to their privacy and the right to express their views in matters that affect them.
Some organisations have their own privacy policies in terms of obtaining consent when publishing images of children and young people online, and when determining what age a young person can provide their own consent. Rather than setting a specific age, the policies may outline situations or examples on a case-by-case basis of when it would be considered appropriate for a young person to be able to provide consent themselves.
When obtaining consent from a young person to publish an image, the consent process should be explained in plain language that a young person could easily understand. Informed consent may be verbally obtained from a child or young person while in the presence of their parent or guardian.
Child protection legislation
There are also laws that protect the identity (e.g., names and images) of children and young people involved in child protection, family court, or criminal proceedings as victims or offenders. For instance, in New South Wales, it is an offence to publish identifiable material of a child who is involved in the Children's Court or a non-court child protection proceeding under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. This means additional efforts should be taken to protect children or young people who are, or have been, subject to child protection, family court or criminal proceedings so that they are not identified in relation to legal matters. These laws are particularly pertinent in relation to media coverage of children's issues. For example, a story about children in out-of-home care that includes a photo of a child or young person should not identify them as a foster child if the young person is less than 18 years of age at the time of publication.
Classification of images online
Internet images of children and young people can sometimes depict them in a sexual manner or in a context that can constitute images of abuse. These are classed as child sexual abuse material. Through Commonwealth, state and territory legislation, it is illegal to produce, distribute, possess or view child pornography in any form (print, photographic, online or visual recording images) in Australia (Griffith & Simon, 2008).
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) investigates complaints about online content, which is assessed by reference to the National Classification Scheme. The ACMA can also refer Internet content to the Classification Board for review if the content may be considered pornographic, violent, criminal or otherwise inappropriate. Classifications of Internet content are equivalent to those that apply to films and computer games. There are four over-arching classification categories that constitute prohibited Internet content under the co-regulatory scheme. The categories are:
- MA15+, provided commercially and not subject to access restrictions;
- R18+ and not subject to access restrictions;
- X18+; and
- RC (Refused Classification).
The types of material that comprise each category are specified in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth). The Act requires material to be classified before it can be released or advertised. Material can be classified RC if it includes:
descriptions or depictions of child sexual abuse or any other exploitative or offensive descriptions or depictions involving a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 years. (Office of Legislative Drafting & Publishing, 2012)
Emerging issues associated with online images produced by children and young people
The majority of children and young people are accessing the Internet on a regular basis (ACMA, 2013a). The likelihood of young people accessing the Internet significantly increases with age, as does the likelihood of young people accessing social networking sites (ACMA, 2013a). One of the dangers of the accessibility of the Internet for young people, particularly with social networking sites, is the ease at which personal information can be posted online, including posting images of themselves and/or their peers. According to a recent ACMA (2013a) survey of young people's experience of social media, nearly 70% of 14 to 17 year olds are posting photos of themselves online. Seventy-one per cent of females and 58% of males reported that they were likely to post a photo of themselves online (ACMA 2013a).
An emerging issue associated with the authoring of visual online content by children and young people, is that they may unwittingly publish images of themselves or their peers that could be considered pornographic or exploitative. For instance, a teenager who sends an email or a text message containing a naked or semi-naked picture of him or herself may be unaware that the image can constitute pornography or that the image could be used inappropriately by others. The sending of provocative or sexual images or videos either using a mobile phone or posting such material online is known as "sexting". A survey of Australian high school students reported that sexting is common in most teenage relationships (Mitchell, Patrick, Heywood, Blackman & Pitts, 2014). Fifty-four per cent of the young people surveyed said that they had received a sexually explicit text message, and 26% reported that they had sent a sexually explicit photo of themselves (Mitchell et al., 2014). The ACMA research reported similar results, with 18% of 16 to 17 year olds reporting that they or someone within their group of friends had received nude or nearly nude photos of someone else (ACMA, 2013a) Thirteen per cent reported that they or someone within their group of friends had sent nude or nearly nude photos or videos of themselves to someone else (ACMA, 2013a).
While sexting is relatively common in teenage relationships, it is important to know that in some states and territories, the misuse of such images may be against the law and can result in criminal charges; however, the police are unlikely to prosecute if there is no harm to those involved (Cybersmart n.d.). Instances are more likely to result in legal implications where one person deliberately shares a photo or video of another person without that person's consent, particularly if the person who shared the image had an intention to humiliate or embarrass.
Victoria was the first state in Australia to introduce sexting legislation. In October 2014, the Victorian Government passed the Crimes Amendment (Sexual Offences and Other Matters) Bill. As part of the new legislation, young people under the age of 18 who engage in non-exploitative sexting can no longer be charged with child pornography charges or be put on the sex offender's register. However, it is an offence to send an intimate image of a person under the age of 18 years to a third party, even if the person under 18 has provided their consent. The law also states that adults who threaten to distribute an intimate image without consent will face charges (Victoria Legal Aid, 2014).
The Cybersmart website provides information for teachers, parents and young people on the issues and consequences associated with sexting, how to report it and what to do if the police become involved.
Another emerging issue concerns the potential for children and young people to use images to engage in cyberbullying behaviour. Cyberbullying involves using information and communication technologies to intentionally harm, harass or perpetuate hostility towards others. It can include abusive texts or emails, excluding people online, or the posting of hurtful messages, images or videos on social networking sites. For example, an unflattering or embarrassing photo could be distributed as a means to humiliate a young person.
Sexting can also lead to cyberbullying. A young person may receive pressure from their partner or peers to participate in sexting behaviour. Another example is where, following the end of a relationship, one person makes intimate images of the other person available publically online or shares them with other third parties. More information on cyberbulling and parents' role in preventing and responding to cyberbullying is available in the CFCA paper Parental Involvement in Preventing and Responding to Cyberbulling.
Currently, there is no national legislation that specially covers cyberbullying; however, sending threatening or harassing images over the Internet or via mobile phones can result in criminal charges under the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) (Pyburne & Jolly, 2014). The Cybersmart website offers helpful information about cyberbullying for parents, teachers and young people.
For further information on helping children and young people stay safe online, including a list of cyberbullying resources, see CFCA Resource Sheet Online Safety.
Good practices related to publishing images of children and young people online
For community organisations and businesses using images of children or young people, quality online practices begin with the ethical production of visual recordings. This means gaining the consent of the child or young person and their parent or guardian prior to recording or producing images of children or the subsequent display or distribution of that photo or visual material.
Some industries and organisations have produced their own voluntary codes of conduct in relation to images of children and young people. The Australian Sports Commission and the Australia Council for the Arts have protocols regarding the creation, acquisition and display of images of children.
Box 1: Best practice guidelines for taking photos of children
The following good practices have been adapted from the Australian Sports Commission's best practice guidelines for obtaining and displaying images of children (Australian Sports Commission, 2007):
- Develop and clearly display the organisation's policy on obtaining and publishing images of children, including what is considered appropriate behaviour when obtaining photographs using a camera, mobile phone or video.
- Obtain permission from the parent or guardian and clearly outline the purpose of using the image, how it is going to be used and for how long. If the image is going to be taken in a venue away from the organisation's usual venue, make sure the parents or guardian agree to be present.
- Inform parents if the organisation wants to film children or the group for analysis purposes and to improve performances.
- Make sure professional photographers are aware that any images taken will remain the property of the organisation and cannot be used or sold for other purposes. Any negatives must also be destroyed or handed over to the organisation.
- Do not allow photographers to be unsupervised or with individual access to children.
- There should be no identifying personal information accompanying photographs, such as the child's name, address or telephone number. Group photographs reduce the risk of identifying individual children.
- Only use images of children that are relevant to the organisation's activities and services, such as children participating in an activity specifically associated with that organisation. Particular care needs to be taken when using images of children for an organisation's activities that involve minimal clothing, such as swimming groups or gymnastics clubs.
- Do not display information about children's hobbies, likes or dislikes, school, etc. because these can be used as grooming tools for paedophiles or other persons.
- Decide who will have access to view the images of the children posted to a website. Most websites are public places that any person can access; however, some websites can be more secure by using private pages accessible only to registered members. The practice of using private pages enables members of groups, clubs or other organisations to share information with each other more securely.
- Provide details for parents or other persons on who to contact if they have concerns or complaints around the use of inappropriate images or inappropriate behaviour in obtaining images.
Supporting children and young people to be safe online
There is a number of strategies that parents can use to help children to be safe online. Parents and carers can be active in educating children and young people to engage in safe Internet behaviours. Many children and young people use social networking websites to share information about themselves on the Internet. It is easy to forget that the Internet is a public place where information can be seen by unintended viewers or used for unintended purposes. Helping children and young people to be aware of the public nature of the Internet can support Internet safety. For example, parents can remind young people that they need to treat private information, like pictures, carefully. Children and young people can be encouraged to talk to parents or carers before putting an image of themselves or people they know on the Internet. Keeping computers, including laptops, in public areas of the house, rather than bedrooms, facilitates supervision and encourages conversations about Internet activities as an ordinary part of contemporary family life.
Through the Cybersmart program, the ACMA offer suggestions and guides to Internet safety. Guides have been designed specifically for parents, children and adolescents.
Box 2: Who is the Australian Communications and Media Authority?
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is the statutory authority responsible for regulating the Internet, broadcasting and telecommunications in Australia. As one the responsibilities of ACMA, ACMA is responsible for promoting self-regulation in the communications industry, protect consumers and other communications users, and foster "an environment in which electronic media respect community standards and respond to audience and user needs" (ACMA, 2013b). ACMA administers regulation of online content as part of the co-regulatory scheme under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. ACMA has the power to investigate complaints about online content and take action where it finds prohibited content. Complaints about a webpage, newsgroup posting or other online content can be lodged with ACMA (see Further information and resources).
Worried about the safety of a child or want to lodge a complaint about a website?
If a website displays an image of your child without the consent of a parent/guardian, or if an image that was authorised for publication has been presented in an inappropriate way, the first step is to contact the author or website administrator to request that the image be removed or altered. A complaint may also be lodged to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (Phone: 1300 363 992) if the image was published by an organisation, individual or agency covered by the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). For general advice on online safety, contact the Cybersmart Contact Centre on 1800 880 176.
The Australian Federal Police Child Protection Operations team investigates and coordinates matters related to online child exploitation within Australia. In conjunction with international agencies, including the Virtual Global Taskforce, the Australian Federal Police Child Protection Operations team can also investigate matters related to websites originating from outside Australia. The team investigates offences associated with pornography, abuse, blackmail, grooming and procurement of children. Reports about online child exploitation can be made directly to the Australian Federal Police through their website. Alternatively, concerns can be reported anonymously to Crime Stoppers (Phone: 1800 333 000) who then forward information to the Australian Federal Police. If a child is in immediate danger, emergency services should be contacted by calling 000 or local police.
Further information and resources
Australian Communications and Media Authority
Contact the ACMA to make a report about prohibited online content.
Australia Council for the Arts
A set of protocols for working with children in the arts.
Australian Federal Police Child Protection Operations team
Provides information about child sex exploitation.
Australian Sports Commission
Information about acquiring and displaying images of children in a sporting environment.
Provides resources, activities and advice specially designed for children, teenagers, parents, schools and library staff. Cybersmart Contact Centre: 1800 880 176.
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, Australian Government
Privacy enquiries line: 1300 363 992.
A booklet produced by the Australian Government that outlines the key information and advice when using the Internet, including issues such as bullying, to help Internet users to stay safe when going online.
An interactive safety program that delivers training to parents, carers and teachers. Created by the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, ThinkUKnow Australia has been developed by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Microsoft Australia.
- Australian Communications and Media Authority. (2013). Regulating media and communications. Retrieved from <www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/About/Corporate/Responsibilities/regulating-media-communications-acma>
- Australian Communications and Media Authority. (2013). Like, post, share: Young Australians' experience of social media. Quantitative research report. Sydney: Australian Communications and Media Authority. Retrieved from <acma.gov.au/~/media/mediacomms/Report/pdf/Like%20post%20share%20Young%20Australians%20experience%20of%20social%20media%20Quantitative%20research%20report.pdf>
- Australian Law Reform Commission. (2008). For your information: Australian privacy law and practice report (Volume 1, Report 108). Canberra: Commonwealth Government of Australia.
- Australian Sports Commission. (2007). Acquiring and displaying images of children. Bruce, ACT: Australian Sports Commission. Retrieved from <www.ausport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/491763/Acquiring_Displaying_images_of_children_V2.pdf>
- Cybersmart. (n.d.). Sexting. Sydney: Australian Communications and Media Authority. Retrieved from <www.cybersmart.gov.au/Parents/Cyber issues/Sexting.aspx>.
- Griffith, G., & Simon, K. (2008). Child pornography law (Briefing Paper No. 9). Sydney: Parliamentary Library Research Service. Retrieved from <www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/publications.nsf/key/ChildPornographyLaw>.
- Mitchell, A., Patrick, K., Heywood, W., Blackman, P., & Pitts, M. (2014) Fifth national survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health. Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. Retrieved from <www.latrobe.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/576554/31631-ARCSHS_NSASSSH_FINAL-A-3.pdf>.
- Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing. (2012). Guidelines for the classification of films. Canberra: Attorney-General's Department. Retrieved from <www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/F2012L02541>.
- Pyburne, P., & Jolly, R. (2014). Australian Governments and dilemmas in filtering the Internet: Juggling freedoms against potential for harm. Canberra: Parliament of Australia. Retrieved from <parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/library/prspub/3324230/upload_binary/3324230.pdf;fileType=application/pdf>.
- United Nations. (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. New York: United Nations.
- Victoria Legal Aid. (2014). Sexting and child pornography. Melbourne: Victoria Legal Aid. Retrieved from <www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/find-legal-answers/sex-and-law/sexting-and-child-pornography>.
This paper was updated by Lucy Ockenden, Communications and Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The previous edition was compiled by Briony Horsfall.