By Tanya Plibersek

23 May 2024



SUBJECTS: Impact of social media and AI on gendered violence.

SABRA LANE: Tanya Plibersek, knowing what you do now, do you wish - it sounds like you'd push back harder in 2007 when smartphones and social media emerged, what would you have done differently?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: I think I would have worked better and more closely with other parents to agree what the appropriate age was for kids to be getting phones and getting into social media. I think there's widely divergent views from parents about what's appropriate. And I think actually using the science about brain development and what's happening to our kids would have been a good start.

You know, Sabra, kids are watching pornographic videos before they've even had their first kiss. The average age of first viewing pornography in Australia today is ten years old. These kids are getting their sex education from violent, degrading pornography online. And unless we begin to tackle it now, we are going to see a continued epidemic of sexual assault amongst teenagers. I heard that story that you had earlier. It's exactly that sort of thing that is driving my concern.

LANE: You equate social media with gambling and tobacco companies effectively turning kids into addicts and that they're allowing misogyny to flourish, and young men are being targeted even if they don't want this material. How should it be stopped? And is it too late?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I don't think it's too late. And we're doing a lot of work as a government. We've quadrupled funding for the eSafety Commissioner, we're working across the Parliament with a Joint Select Committee to examine the right age to be able to use social media. We've got a trial of age assurance technologies. We've got a new phase of a public information campaign that deals with some of these issues. There's a lot of activity happening.

I think, beyond what government can do, I think this is something that as a society, we need to confront. So, there's absolutely a role for government. We absolutely are prepared to take action, but we also as parents, as community leaders, as role models for our children need to tackle, "What next?". And the "what next?" question is really important here because AI, this new frontier, is able to, for example, generate the most convincing deepfake pornography that can be distributed to bully and harass kids. If we don't get a handle on this now, it's going to escape in the same way as social media escaped into society, and we're dealing with the consequences.

LANE: How quickly do we need to tackle that - given some of that that's out there now?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yesterday. My colleague, Ed Husic, is all over this. He set up a temporary AI expert group in January, looking at the kind of guardrails we need. And Australia's signed up to an international effort called the Bletchley Declaration, with 27 countries looking at how AI should be designed and used in a safe way. These are really important issues, but probably the most important thing we can do as parents and as citizens is educate ourselves about the potential for disaster here.

LANE: As you mentioned, there is going to be an age verification trial for children. I think the age has been talked about is 16. South Australia wants children banned under 14. What do you think is the right age?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, look, I'm not going to just pluck a figure out of the air, but I can tell you as a parent, I reckon the longer they wait, the better. The healthier interactions are the ones that they're doing in person; going out, playing sport, you know, being human beings with each other.

And I think this is the really sad thing about social media. It could have been such a force for bringing people together, and in fact, it's broken its promise to us. We've got kids who are more isolated, more depressed, more stressed than ever before.

LANE: You say you're not one for moral panic, but there'll be some libertarians, no doubt, who will argue that you're sounding like you want a nanny state and that people should be more responsible about their own choices. You say that parents should be more aware of what's happening. How do you respond to that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I think, we all have a responsibility for our own tech diet, what we consume, what we let our kids consume. But the truth is you've got all these highly paid geniuses working on ways to get your kids hooked and keep them hooked. As parents on our own, it is almost impossible to push back on that in the same way that the promoters of poker machines or the promoters of tobacco are really great at using brain science to get people hooked and keep them hooked because they're driven by dollars. We know that these social media giants, they're in the same boat. They're getting our kids hooked. They're keeping them hooked because they know getting in early means a lifetime of customers.

LANE: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining AM this morning.