Federal Member For Banks
Shadow Minister for Communications

Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – ABC Radio Sydney- Sydney Mornings with Sarah Macdonald

Subjects: Coalition’s backing for age verification to protect Australian Children from social media


Sarah Macdonald: There is however, a rare consensus right now in our national Parliament. Every party is united against the social media juggernauts like Elon Musk’s ‘X’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Meta’. The Federal Opposition is now pushing for a concrete step in terms of ages. It wants a compulsory age limit to get on social media platforms. David Coleman is the Shadow Minister for Communications. Good morning.

David Coleman:
Good morning, Sarah.

Sarah Macdonald: So, we have age limits at the moment. How different is your proposal?

David Coleman: Well, we don’t really have age limits at the moment, Sarah. So basically, what happens now is the platform self-determine that the age limit is 13 and the enforcement of that is close to zero. So, there isn’t really an age limit at the moment. So, what this is about is moving towards a mandatory system of age verification. Now, back in March last year, the eSafety Commissioner recommended a trial of this technology. And what that would mean is that you would have a situation where kids under a certain age wouldn’t be able to access social media. And I think that’s really important that we get on with this trial. It was recommended more than a year ago. The evidence in terms of the impact of children on social media is damning. Children are seeing things every day on social media that we would never, ever allow in any other context. And we shouldn’t accept it, a lot is happening around the world on this issue, and we need to get moving in Australia.

Sarah Macdonald: What age would you like the limit to be?

David Coleman: Well, that’s something the Commissioner would look at as part of the trial. If you look at Florida, they’ve recently passed a law that’s 16, other states in the US said 15-16 is generally the age, but it’s certainly not ten. And it’s certainly not no age at all. And the reality is now if you think about it, we have a classification system still for movies and TV shows. We have that classification system because we all accept and agree that we don’t want children seeing horrible violent material or pornographic material, whatever it is in those formats. So why is it okay on social media?

Sarah Macdonald: Well, they are seeing it on social media. I mean it’s meant to be 13 and Meta says we use AI to monitor and make sure that people are over 13 on our platform. They’re on TikTok at 13 and a lot of young ones are on that, they probably find Meta pretty old people’s stuff. But how do you monitor it? Like how do you police it? Say you say that’s the age, how can you possibly enforce that?

David Coleman: Yeah, sorry just to pick up first on the point about what the platforms do. So, the US Surgeon General, the top doctor in the United States, he said last year that research showed in the US that 40% of 8- to 12-year-olds were on social media. So, the notion that even 13 is effectively enforced by the platforms is completely absurd. That is not the case. I’m not saying that they don’t do anything, but it is clearly very ineffective. What the trial would do is establish the best mechanisms for conducting that verification. And that’s what’s happening around the world at the moment as well. There was a similar program in Europe last year. Ofcom, the regulator in the United Kingdom, is working on the same issue. And there are various methods. But any method is better than what we have now, which is basically no method and a situation where the mental health impacts on kids are very concerning. I had responsibility for mental health in the previous Government and when you look at things like the rates of self-hospitalisation, self-harm and hospitalisation amongst children, particularly girls, self-poisoning attempts by girls in particular, they have gone up dramatically in the last decade. Social media is not the only reason, but I do strongly believe that it’s part of the reason.

Sarah Macdonald: Oh, I think a lot of parents would agree with you. It’s toxic. It’s foul. I mean, why couldn’t, did you do anything on this when you’re in Government? Did you try and reign in the social media companies on this? You’ve said we need a trial of the best mechanisms because it is very hard to police and set this up.

David Coleman: Yeah, well we brought in the Online Safety Act, which is regarded as world leading. And in fact, it’s the Online Safety Act that is being used right now to pursue X over these videos. And it does have various safety measures in it. But online moves fast and this is an issue that isn’t getting better. We also proposed obligation on social media companies to act in the best interest of children when we’re in Government. But the bottom line is, the single most valuable thing we can do to protect kids on social media is for them to be on it far less, because once they’re in that environment, as a parent, can you be confident in what they see? Absolutely not.

Sarah Macdonald: Yeah, so what’s the role of parents here in terms of this? I mean, parents have a responsibility to, they’re the parents.

David Coleman: Of course they do. And I think the vast majority of parents do the right thing. And I think this is an issue that every parent worries about. But, the US Surgeon General, he’s been talking a lot about this recently and he sort of says, well parents are bewildered. And as I said, if you’re a parent, there are some things you can do. You can try and put in place some safety controls and so on. But like I said, once the child is in that environment you can’t be sure what they see. And so creating a rule that says kids under this age shouldn’t be on there, in the same way we do for other products that we regard as dangerous or inappropriate for children to use, will help parents immensely in reducing the exposure that their kids have to social media, and that would be a really good thing.

Sarah Macdonald: I’m keen to hear from people about what, I mean I would say to my kids at 16, you’re not allowed to get an Instagram account till, 16, I think. But they said, no it’s 13. So that’s what the platforms themselves say is the age limit, they let them on after that. But 1300 222 702 if you want to tell me the arguments, you’re having with your young one on these school holidays, what they’re on and what the age limits are and how they’re getting around them. David Coleman is the Shadow Minister for Communications. I just want to ask you though, about the Government and the new Bills in terms of trying to make sure that we don’t have misinformation and false information online. The Opposition was worried about freedom of speech, and you yourself said it’s a bad Bill, the Government should rip it up, it’s fundamental to our democracy. You would fight for that, and it would lead to digital companies self-censoring legitimately held views of Australians to avoid the risk of massive fines. Have you changed your mind about that on misinformation?

David Coleman: Well the Bill, it was a very bad Bill and we don’t have another Bill to review because the Government hasn’t put one out. So, what we know is that the last Bill was very bad for free speech. It had dozens of different problems in it. And that’s why people like the Human Rights Commission, the Law Council of Australia, the civil liberties groups, frankly, pretty much everyone criticised the Bill. So, what the Government’s saying is they’re going to come back with another version. We’ll look at that very carefully. But we’re not going to compromise on legitimate political debate in Australia. We’re not going to accept a situation where free speech is compromised. And what the Government says it’s doing is revising the Bill, taking into account all the myriad of problems in it and then bringing it back at some point this year. And when they do that, we’ll look at it very conscientiously. But we haven’t seen it, and we certainly won’t accept any Bill that is anything like what they put out last time because it was a very bad Bill.

Sarah Macdonald: Which do you think is the worst social media platform for young people? The most harmful.

David Coleman: Oh look, I think they’re all pretty bad, to be frank. I’m not sure I could differentiate between them. I think, as I said, imagine we went back 20 years ago and we said we’re going to create an environment where any child can communicate with any random person on earth, and that person can provide that child with just about any material they want to. Now, we would have said, well, that’s absurd, we can’t do that. But that’s what’s happened. And so the problem is once you’re in that environment of effectively unfiltered interactions, in every previous generation there have been controls and filters around what kids see. And as I said, the classification system is sort of the best demonstration of that.

Sarah Macdonald: Yeah but you know as well as I do that kids get around this and I’m getting people texting in, saying, come on, kids change their age. My nephew did it. I’m all for them being restricted. But they do get phones and they’re good at getting around anything that is imposed upon them because they’re smart on this stuff.

David Coleman: Yeah that’s true Sarah. But I think at the moment that the reality is that there isn’t any significant or meaningful restrictions around age. And when you said before that kids were saying, well, no 13 is the age because Instagram says so, like, why do we care what Instagram says? I mean, why on earth would we trust them to determine an appropriate age for our children to see this content. It doesn’t make any sense at all. And so I think that at that moment there are very, very limited controls. And that means it’s pretty much anything goes. What we’re saying is, we need to move to an environment where there are rules and there are consequences for the platforms if under aged kids are in that environment. Now, will people try to get around it? Yeah, of course it’s the internet. People will try and get around it. Is that a reason to do nothing? Absolutely not. I was head of Digital for Nine before I got into Parliament, and I have a good understanding of digital technology. And you’re right in saying people will try and get around whatever rule you impose. But we don’t in other contexts say, well people will try and get around it so let’s just throw our hands up in the air and do nothing. And that’s why we as a Coalition think this is very important. We feel very strongly about this. Peter Dutton is very, very clear that we need to get moving on this age verification trial.

Sarah Macdonald:
So it’s a trial, not a change, is what you’re proposing. Try it, see if we can do it, see if we can impose it and what the effects are?

David Coleman: Yeah well, we’ve got to get started on the trial right now. I mean, the Commissioner recommended it more than a year ago, and it doesn’t make any sense at all to be frank, that we’re not doing it. We actually moved legislation to Parliament in November last year to start this process and we would like it to occur.

Sarah Macdonald: Watch this space. It’s good to see there’s some agreement about some of these issues at the moment in Federal Parliament. Thanks for your time this morning.

David Coleman: Thanks Sarah.

Sarah Macdonald: David Coleman, the Shadow Minister for Communications, to get a message to my daughter. She is 14, she’s just been given access to Instagram because we couldn’t socially isolate her any longer. Parents need to be supported by regulations because children who are kept off are left behind socially and there are other unintended consequences of that.