Keeping kids safer online over summer

As the year draws to a close, holidays will soon be upon us – and like many people I’m looking forward to the fun and joy, while also feeling a tiny bit of trepidation.  Along with the festivities, there may be long-haul travel and stresses associated family tension or gift-giving expectations. While I’m usually the last person to leave the holiday party or utter a “bah humbug”, it is important to keep in mind that this time of year can be particularly challenging for young people navigating the online world.

If you are like me, you can only bear to play “I Spy” for so many hours on the road trip to grandma’s before screens are permitted.  And let’s be really honest:  most of us parents are anticipating our children crying, “I’m bored!!!” only nanoseconds into the long summer break.

Technology is one way to keep them entertained, but we can forget that their use needs to be balanced to ensure healthy and happy experiences. It’s surprising how many toys or devices are Internet-enabled these days, from drones and smart teddies to tablets and wearables - even those used by young children can have unexpected safety risks. Our eSafety gift guide suggests some simple tips to manage this, including deactivating voice or recording features, using parental controls and activating privacy settings.

Sadly, there’s also another online risk to look out for, particularly over summer: cyberbullying.

Holidays can amplify feelings of loneliness and instability, even for those who have a supportive home environment. It’s a time when many young people spend more time online, especially as boredom and FOMO set in very quickly over a long summer break. But it’s also a time when kids have less access to their usual support systems, including friends, teachers and school counsellors.

Add to the isolation a sense of disappointment about their own relationships, experiences or circumstances not “measuring up” to the snaps posted by other kids, and the combination can be quite crippling.

The long break can also leave young people more vulnerable to social exclusion, a more covert form of cyberbullying, especially if they depend on their online community for their sense of self-worth and validation.  Mean, humiliating, harassing or threatening online comments can make the social isolation worse and the longer cyberbullying continues, the more stressed and withdrawn kids can become. This can lead to devastating impacts on their emotional and physical well-being.

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 young Australians experience cyberbullying, yet research shows only 55% confide in a parent if they experience a negative online incident. That means you may be totally unaware of comments and images targeting your child, even though they’re highly visible to their friends and peers. Only about 12% of young people report the incident to the social media site where it’s been posted.

In an ideal world, being as engaged with young people’s online lives as we are with their offline lives would help us protect them from negative incidents or minimise any damage. But at the eSafety Office we understand parents and carers struggle with that. Our research shows less than 50% of parents feel confident in dealing with cyberbullying.

So at this time of year it can be particularly useful to take a look at our eSafety resources about cyberbullying, to help you stay vigilant and navigate the issue with the young people in your life. The start of the holidays provides a good opportunity to have a conversation with your child about what to do if cyberbullying happens to them or a friend, before it occurs.

How to recognise cyberbullying

Our cyberbullying reporting service can help young people who are being harassed online, by working with social media platforms to have the harmful content quickly removed. So far, we’ve helped over 1,000 children and their families, and each month the number is continuing to grow as the message spreads that we are here to help people deal with the issue. If you’re in Melbourne or Adelaide, you may have seen the community notice boards highlighting the service—pointing them out can be a useful way to get a discussion going with your family and friends. 

But of course, the success of the service depends on the young people, their parents or carers first recognising the cyberbullying for what it is, then taking action.

So these holidays, be on the lookout for some of these signs that may indicate your child is being cyberbullied:

  • Being secretive about their online activities
  • Avoiding social outings
  • Deleting their social media or email accounts
  • Making noticeable changes in their friendship groups 
  • Appearing upset after using their mobile, tablet or computer  
  • During term, a decline in grades or avoiding school may also be an indicator.

We also know that girls are more likely to be affected than boys, the average age is 14 and that the online bullying tends to be perpetrated by peers they know.

What to do if your child is being cyberbullied

As parents, our first instinct may be to ban our children from social media, disable the wi-fi or turn off the data access. But this can actually compound the problem, making your child feel as if they’re being punished and heightening their sense of social exclusion.

If you find it’s happening to a young person in your care, there are four simple steps that can help minimise the harm:

  • report the cyberbullying to the social media service where it is occurring
  • collect evidence of the cyberbullying material
  • if the material is not removed within 48 hours, make a report to eSafety
  • block the offending user.

Small actions towards larger goals

By and large, cyberbullying doesn’t occur on its own. It’s usually an extension of conflict that’s been occurring in the school yard or elsewhere. It’s also a reflection of the communities where we live, mirroring wider societal attitudes and behaviours. So, it would be unrealistic to think we can completely eliminate bullying online while face-to-face bullying persists in society and is, in fact, more prevalent than cyberbullying.

On the flipside, tackling the issue of bullying more widely across society, by making it clear that we won’t tolerate it anywhere, would help put the brakes on bad behaviour online.  This will entail significant cultural change, needing dedication and commitment from people across our communities.  But every one of us can make a difference by taking small steps – and what better time to start than over the festive season when good will is high and people make positive resolutions?

The eSafety website is a great place to start — you’ll find a range of resources to bring you up to speed on the latest online trends, risks and ways to mitigate these safely. Your child does not need to suffer in silence and there are great tips for parents and carers to support their children through trying online times. 

Building your skills and knowledge base in this area is another step in the right direction towards changing negative online behaviours. And, just as you surf the waves together with your kids over the summer, you should resolve to surf the Internet with your kids too.  Co-view, co-play, have fun and explore together! You might just find that technology serves as a great enabler of togetherness this holiday season!