The issue of cyber safety has been a rising concern for educational institutions and families for more than a decade, yet the exact nature of the concern varies and continues to shift.
Part of the reason for the shifting nature of the concern is that new technologies allow people to interact in new ways. Some of the platforms are intentionally designed and marketed for new generations, sometimes to the exclusion of previous generations.
The 2012 film Disconnect, starring Jason Bateman and Alexander Skårsgard, explores these themes in a context that is at once relatable but also highly confronting. In it, a quiet teenage boy is driven to attempting suicide as a result of both online and offline relationships.
Most interestingly, the film develops a wide range of characters that are in some way connected to the young man, revealing that each has their own shortcomings when it comes to dealing with a life that is increasingly moderated by interconnected software.
Cyber Safety in Australian Schools
The issue of online security for schools in Australia – and across the globe – has been a concern since the World Wide Web first began to enter the schoolroom in the 1990s.
For this reason, Cybersmart was created and, as of July 2015, has transitioned to the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner – an independent statutory office created by the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015.
In an interview with WhichSchool, Senior Education Advisor at the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner Kellie Britnell, said that the major driver for such an organisation is the need for a complaints scheme for cyberbullying material.
“A key objective of the Office is to reduce Australian children’s exposure to cyberbullying. In fulfilling this the Commissioner, Alastair MacGibbon is taking a preventative approach to encourage and empower children and their carers to take positive measures to address cyberbullying behaviours as they first arise.”
The Office can therefore offer a final port of call for anyone concerned about a cyberbullying incident, which can then be acted upon.
“The Office will aim to work with social media services, parents and schools to ensure serious cyberbullying material is removed and educational material and information is provided to assist in preventing future incidents of cyberbullying,” Britnell said.
This is quite a dramatic change from the early days of cyber safety, where efforts were focused more tightly on restricting children’s access to content. Today, education is the best prevention. But when things go wrong, the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner is available to assist in rectify the situation.
Education, Awarenesss and Engagement
At some point in the 2000s, simply relying on classifications standards to guide schools on what was appropriate online became meaningless.
Not only were students better able to access more websites than ever before, they came to school equipped with better technology to do so. The advent of smartphones at schools saw some institutions placing blanket bans on mobile phones – often to little effect.
Most recently, anonymous messaging apps like Secret or Yik Yak have made headlines and are of concern to parents and teachers alike. In extreme cases, these platforms are being used to allow bullies to more easily target their victims, leading to anxiety and, in extreme cases, psychological trauma.
Even more insidious is the way young people can be led into feeling ‘safe’ online in the presence of strangers.
“Mobile devices, with their wireless web access, have renewed concerns about youth privacy and inappropriate content,” said Jeremy Blackman, Senior Advisor on Cyber Safety for The Alannah and Madeline Foundation.
The concern for parents today is not what their children may accidentally stumble across while online, but what they may willingly enter into without being fully aware of the consequences. Blackman reminds us that children and teens can be particularly vulnerable to social factors.
“Young people are strongly motivated to use online platforms by their social needs and peer groups; so cyber safety education is not just about ‘knowing the facts’, but rather, being able to apply that knowledge in online contexts – most of which are social in nature. For example, current cyber safety issues such as ‘sexting’ and ‘cyberbullying’ require social and emotional skills to navigate safely.”
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation has a specific interest in this area, as not only is it a non-profit organisation dedicated to keeping children safe from violence, it has also taken an instrumental role in the creation of the eSmart Schools program – an initiative that seeks to change online behaviour by interfacing directly with schoolchildren.
“eSmart Schools is a whole-school approach to wellbeing, bullying and cyber safety; it guides school leadership through all the actions necessary to create a respectful culture in the school community. Achieving ‘eSmart Status’ is a rigorous process that is well resourced and supported by evidence. “
Having been piloted in 2010, eSmart is now being implemented in 2,200 schools across the country, with 300 of them having already achieved ‘eSmart Status’.
“An independent evaluation run by the Foundation for Young Australians in 2014 revealed that 98 per cent of school principals would recommend eSmart Schools, and 84 per cent of Coordinators said it helped them to deliver policies and procedures on bullying, cyberbullying and cyber safety,” Blackman said.
Virtual World Reflects Reality
As always, ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’ and this statement certainly applies to vulnerable young people at schools.
According to a research led by the University of NSW’s Social Policy Research Centre and published in 2014, one in five Australian children aged eight to 15 has experienced cyberbullying, and this statistic would also be seen in education systems around the world. But how different would the story be for bullying of other kinds? While cyberbullying may be the most common concern when it comes to cyber safety for children, it’s not necessarily the most pernicious.
Much of what occurs to young people happens regardless of whether it’s in school, at home or someplace in between. However, young people don’t all have the same support networks, guidance and counseling available to them.
“The best outcomes are achieved when the whole school community embraces safe cyber safety practice underpinned by effective and current policies. These policies should reflect the technologies currently in use, the expectations of the school community and act as an extension of their duty of care,” said Britnell.
Just as the adult characters found in the movie Disconnect, the first helpful thing we can do to ensure our children’s safety is to adequately modify our own behaviour – in the real and online worlds – to enable us to assist them with theirs. Following that, choosing a school that communicates an understanding and commitment to its duty of care, as well as a comprehensive cyber safety program, will help ensure our children aren’t completely vulnerable every time they go online.