Online safety education: Targeting behaviours rather than technologies

I recently had the opportunity to present to a group of Australian education leaders about the work of the eSafety Office in addressing the range of online ills we see playing out on technology, including cyberbullying and image-based abuse.

While preparing for this discussion, I could feel multiple tabs opening in my brain as I contemplated the key skills I want my own children to possess while navigating the online world, drawing from evidence-based knowledge of strategies that work versus strategies that don’t.  As a parent, I know I represent the front line of defence in keeping my kids safe online but I want these important lessons and skills to be taught and reinforced throughout my children’s educational journey as well.  This is particularly relevant as my children begin to use technology for learning in-and-outside the classroom, ostensibly in preparation for the work force of tomorrow.

Research conducted by the eSafety Office tells us that 1 in 4 Australian children are physically bullied and that 1 in 5 young Australians experience cyberbullying. Not surprisingly, most of 900 cyberbullying reports into our office have been peer-based and an extension of the face-to-face bullying a child might be experiencing within the school gates.  In other words, cyberbullying is a social and behavioural issue playing out in a technological sphere – not caused by technology itself.  That is why it is so important that these online behaviours are addressed in tandem with root causes of the social conflict.

Based on this knowledge, we know the best thing we can do for our young people to combat cyberbullying is to target the behaviours by educating, empowering and equipping them early on with the 4 Rs of Online Safetyrespect, resilience, responsibility and reasoning across all of their interactions. We need to purposefully and consistently teach them these principles so that they become good global citizens online and offline. If we get the educational and cultural change programs right, hopefully, we will encourage our young people to do a few key things in the face of cyberbullying: 

  • When safe to do so, stand up for their peers online—to be a positive “upstander” rather than a “bystander”;
  • To report serious cyberbullying to the social media site or eSafety office;
  • To speak to a trusted adult (or peer) without feeling stigmatised as a ‘dobber’, and;
  • To understand that they are not alone and that there is no weakness in seeking support.

Effective eSafety education

My thoughts also turned to what types of education programs we should be advocating for as best-practice in driving behaviour change. I recently had the opportunity to listen to a presentation and research by David Finkelhor from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which scanned the research environment to uncover the educational interventions that work well to promote safe online behaviours. His research comports with the observation, evidence base and evaluation the eSafety Office has conducted over the past few years. The following methods were found to be generally ineffective: programs that are too brief; discreet lectures; single exposure videos and a reliance on stern warnings and fear mongering.

At the eSafety Office, we believe that consistent, age appropriate and positive approaches to education and awareness are key to prevention. To this end, we strive to deliver pragmatic, solutions-focused online safety advice and develop resources that are delivered through various platforms, using different approaches. The good news is that the available research is helping us develop an evidence base to understand what works well and enrich our educational outputs. In brief, these successful interventions tend to include:

  • Multiple exposures to online safety, using varied educational platforms including videos, games, posters, class discussions and parental engagement;
  • A focus on specific skills along with opportunities to practice these skills;
  • Early education prior to onset of targeted behaviour guided by well-trained educators, and;
  • Monitored implementation and improvement of programs through evaluation.

At the eSafety Office, we work to incorporate these proof points into the range of programs we deliver, whilst also working to ensure they are mapped to the Australian curriculum.  Some of these initiatives include:

  • Our Virtual Classrooms program has reached over 240,000 students and teachers across the country since 2015, exploring the latest issues young people are dealing with and how best to manage the risks;
  • Our wide range of classroom resources, including our award-winning Rewrite Your Story video series which addresses the complex issues of cyberbullying and how to deal with these challenges, and our Young & eSafe site that provides opportunities for young people to practice the 4 Rs when interacting online;
  • Our latest digital and social health program—The YeS Project—encourages young people to be positive influencers and supportive friends in all of their social spaces, especially online.
  • Our exciting new interactive multi-player video game—The Lost Summer—encourages online role play utilising the 4 Rs. The game is designed for use in the classroom and is supported by teacher resources as we know gamification is a great way to engage students and allow them to practice skills such as the 4 Rs in a fun and interactive environment;
  • Our series of national professional learning webinars for teachers which are aligned to Professional Standards and the Australian Curriculum and our pre-service teacher training program for those who are about to enter the workforce, and;
  • Our Parents resources to help parents and carers understand online risks, how to manage these risks, parental controls, and trending issues and technologies.

Ideally, online safety education and related education, like “respectful relationships education,” should become a fixture throughout the K-12 curriculum.  This eSafety education should be delivered consistently across the nation.  But this education, and modelling of positive online behaviour, does need to begin in the home with parents and carers. 

Unless these bad behaviours are targeted and positive online behaviours consistently enforced, we are going to face a losing battle.  And, we need to remember it is the behaviours that are to blame, not the technology itself.  If we ban an app, another will surely arise in its place.

If we ban a technology or device, our kids will surely find a way to circumvent those restrictions.  They need to be armed with the skills and knowledge to navigate their online worlds safely, responsibly and respectfully.  And, the eSafety Office was formed to help young Australians do just that.

A version of this op-ed was originally published by Education Matters Magazine.