Over the past decade nearly 1,500 children have been found guilty of child exploitation material offences in Queensland alone. Of the 3,035 dealt with by the Queensland criminal justice system in the 10 years to 30 June 2017, 1,498 were under the age of 17.

Only twenty-eight were sentenced in court. Of the remaining 1,470, 92.9 per cent received a formal caution from police, while a small proportion was referred to the restorative justice process.

The majority of young offenders were engaged in “sexting-based offences” with a nearly even split between possession, distribution and production. The average age was 14.8 years, with the youngest offender being just 10 years of age.

This has prompted Queensland police to adopt a policy prioritising education over punishment. Guidelines have also been created for parents who are concerned about their teenagers’ internet and phone use.

Under Commonwealth law, children under 17 can be charged and found guilty of possession, distribution or production of child exploitation material. This includes images or videos of themselves which have been taken or shared consensually.

Advancements in technology are partly to blame for the rise in this kind of crime.

Queensland Police are now focusing on prevention and education, over punishment. When considering whether to pursue a criminal investigation, factors including the age of the involved parties, whether the person was consenting and the context in which the shared occurred, will be taken into account.

The distinction between sexting among young people and other child exploitation material offences was a big factor leading to Victoria changing its laws in 2014. Today, no one in the state can be criminally liable for taking explicit images of themselves.

In NSW, the laws surrounding child exploitation materials are stricter. If you’re under the age of 16 and you “sext” sexually explicit photographs – whether or not the material was consensual – it will be considered ‘child abuse material’ and treated as a criminal offence. It is also a crime to possess, distribute and request images considered to be ‘offensive’ or ‘indecent’ by the Court of someone under the age of 16.

Penalties include being placed on the child sex offender register and a maximum sentence of 15 years gaol. If you are placed on the child sex offender register you have regular reporting obligations; there are restrictions regarding where you can work, and your name and details can be accessed publicly on the register.

So what can you do if your child is one of the victims?

1) Report the matter to the police at Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000 or the Child Protection Helpline on 132 111.

2) If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or exploitation, support is available at 1800 RESPECT and Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

And what can you do if you are detected as a perpetrator of these offences?

1) The consequences of having these charges laid against you can be serious and compromise your future. You should get legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity.