Violent content needs whole-of-society action: ASIO

Kat Wong |

The impact of the internet is a “significant concern”, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess says.
The impact of the internet is a “significant concern”, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess says.

Children harmed by violent, extremist material should not be the sole responsibility of law enforcement and security services, Australia’s top spy said, calling for powers to question youngsters to be repealed

As Australia reckons with a spate of stabbings allegedly committed by minors, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess says the impact of the internet is a “significant concern”.

“There is something bad going on where young, ill-formed brains are subject to a whole lot of objectionable material and violent extremism material online, in the schoolyard, in society,” he told an inquiry into ASIO’s powers on Thursday.

“This is a bigger issue where we need a whole-of-society response.”

ASIO was given the powers to question children aged 14 to 18 after the number of minors in its caseload peaked in 2020.

An Australian child plays on a smartphone
“Young, ill-formed brains are subject to a whole lot of objectionable material,” Mr Burgess says. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS)

But Mr Burgess said the organisation no longer required the measure for that age group, even in extreme cases, and wanted them to be repealed.

For example, ASIO has come across a person who was exposed to neo-Nazi content and videos of beheadings from terrorist group Islamic State.

“They are being captured by violence, their brain is being damaged,” Mr Burgess said.

“You need someone more qualified to pull them out of that and put them on a better path, disengage with that violent extremist material and hopefully save their life – that’s what society needs.

“It’s not for law enforcement and intelligence security services alone and I passionately believe this is not the space we need to be in.”

Australian Federal Police assistant commissioner Stephen Nutt said his organisation had come across more than 20 juveniles since July 2021, about half of whom had been subject to charges.

“We recognise that young people are different to adults and we do prioritise disruption and prevention techniques and therapeutic options where available,” he told the inquiry.

A 16-year-old boy was charged with terrorism after allegedly stabbing a bishop at a church in western Sydney in mid-April.

Later that month a 17-year-old was charged over the stabbing murder of her 10-year-old sister in Lake Macquarie, and on Saturday a 17-year-old was charged with attempted murder following a fight in Brisbane.

The federal government is set to examine the impacts of social media on users in a parliamentary committee and has committed $6.5 million to pilot “age-assurance technologies” in a bid to prevent children accessing inappropriate and harmful online content.

Cabinet minister Tanya Plibersek noted social media was also affecting gendered violence and needed to be addressed.

“These kids are getting their sex education from violent, degrading pornography online,” she told ABC radio.

“And unless we begin to tackle it now, we are going to see a continued epidemic of sexual assault amongst teenagers.”