Work-related exposure to child exploitation material: The experiences of Western Australian digital forensic officers and their spouses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Psychology and Social Science


Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science

First Advisor

Dr Catherine Ferguson

Second Advisor

Professor Alfred Allan


Researchers contend that chronic exposure to child exploitation material (CEM) contributes to stress, psychological and interpersonal problems among police officers in digital forensic roles. The spouses of these officers have been identified as key supports, who potentially influence the officers’ coping experiences. The existing research is, however, limited in that no studies have specifically examined Western Australian officers’ experiences nor investigated the support role of the officers’ spouses. Psychologists and managers of Australian digital forensic officers therefore have little evidence to inform policies, programs, and interventions that act to minimise adverse outcomes among these personnel. As such, across four stages, this research project used interpretative phenomenological analysis to explore the experience and effects of work-related CEM exposure in Western Australian digital forensic officers and their spouses.

Stage one involved individual, semi-structured interviews with 13 members of the Western Australian Police Computer Crime Squad to examine “What is the meaning and essence of the lived experience of working with CEM?” Six themes emerged: context and culture over time; construction of identity; perceptions of work role; cognitive structures of CEM; perceived outcomes of CEM exposure; and coping. Stage two involved a single group interview which explored the perspectives of two of the squad’s supervisors, revealing three focal points: perceptions of stage one findings; perceived stressors and outcomes; and supervisory perspectives. Stage three used individual, semi-structured interviews with three of the offices’ spouses to investigate “What is the meaning and lived experience of being the spouse of a digital forensic officer who is exposed to CEM?” Six themes emerged: sense making of identity; perceptions of officer partner’s work experiences; perceptions of CEM exposure; gatekeeping role; perceived stress experiences of officer partner; perceptions of coping and support. In stage four the experiences of four new, less-experienced squad, members were explored. Five themes emerged across the individual, semi-structured interviews which closely reflected those of stage one, though more comprehensively captured early experiences with CEM exposure.

Taken together, four conclusions emerged. First, adjusting to CEM exposure, although somewhat neglected in previous research, is a crucial evolving process during early exposures. Second, working with CEM transcends professional and personal lived experience, and these effects are not necessarily negative; for example, many officers derive a sense of meaning through their work. Third, consistent with previous findings, coping with CEM exposure is a complex and dynamic experience. Fourth, organisational and cultural practices are critical in these experiences. These findings contribute to the evidence-base upon which policies, practices and education programs that support these police officers and their spouses, can be developed and implemented. Psychologists need to be aware that work-related CEM exposure is qualitatively distinct from other policing stressors and that efforts to minimise risk, while promoting adaptive coping and supports, are crucial to the wellbeing of digital forensic officers.

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