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Back at school? 6 online safety tips for the ‘new normal’

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a world we could never have imagined. From self-isolation to social distancing, some of the habits we developed during lockdown feel like the new normal.

We changed how we ‘go’ to school by studying remotely and expanding our use of digital technology to communicate with our teachers and classmates.

We also spent more time online so we could stay connected with friends and relatives. With others stuck at home with us doing the same thing, there was often the added pressure of having to help family members understand how to use new technologies. And there were some arguments about who got to use the household devices and data.

All of this happened while we were living with uncertainty about when things would get back to normal for our family, friends and the world.

Lockdown restrictions are slowly being lifted across Australia, but things have not returned to the old ‘normal’ yet and probably never will — more time online is likely to continue to be part of life.

At the back of our minds we know there’s a chance we may have to self-isolate again — especially if there’s a case of COVID-19 at school or one of our family members picks up coronavirus.

Spending more time online has also increased the chance of being exposed to some negative behaviours and inappropriate or upsetting content, that might have made us feel uncomfortable.

eSafety has put together some advice to make sure you look after your online safety and wellbeing — to help navigate the uncharted territory we are in. Take some time to explore this advice and learn how to get support if things become difficult.

On this page:

Stay connected with friends

While restrictions are slowly being lifted, we are still spending a lot of time at home. That can mean feeling both crowded and lonely. It can also be a serious challenge if it’s not a safe space for everyone.

Some of us have also lost casual jobs that gave us important independence.

Although it’s a relief to be able to start seeing our friends again, many of us can only hang out in restricted numbers and we still can’t get too close to each other. So, it could still be a while before we can return to activities that usually break up the boredom, like hanging out with heaps of friends at parties, playing sport with mates and going on proper dates.

If you are trying to stay connected online until restrictions end, you may want to mix things up with one of these activities:

  • Organise a virtual catchup. Seems like a no-brainer but this is the most important. Schedule time each week where you and your friends can all come together and video chat to catch up on what everyone’s been up to.
  • Start a fitness or dance challenge with friends. Never thought you’d be up for learning a choreographed dance on TikTok? Think again! Challenge your mates to learn the same dance or test another physical skill like doing push ups — against the clock in a group chat.
  • Get creative and learn something new. Social distancing has definitely not been easy but it’s important to try turn it into a positive. Will you ever get this much time to yourself again? Maybe not. So, take the time to deep dive into something that really interests you and that you might not be able to learn at school. Hey, that’s what YouTube videos are actually for! Ever wanted to learn how make music? Cook? Maybe it’s learning another language. Whatever it is, now is the time.

Manage your mental health in and out of COVID lockdown

With millions of people all around the world still in isolation, dealing with restrictions or facing longer term impacts like ongoing unemployment, it’s normal to feel many different emotions. You might be feeling lonely, frustrated, anxious, sad or angry. You could be having a hard time at home with your family or you might be seeing members of your family struggling.

What can you do?

  • Stay connected with your friends and family as part of a daily routine. If things are bothering you online or offline, speak openly about it.
  • Reach out to your extended family such as cousins, aunties or uncles if you are having a hard time at home with your immediate family.
  • Let your teachers or school counsellor know if you need extra support.
  • If you are feeling pressures from social media, it’s OK to take a break or switch-off.
  • If you think you are being cyberbullied or you feel uncomfortable or unsafe about someone who has contacted you online, read up on eSafety’s advice about how to get support.

It’s important to take care of yourself and look out for your friends and family at the same time. Listen to them and remind them that you care about them but don’t take on too much yourself, especially if you are struggling with your own emotions or experiences. Try directing them to a service that offers trusted advice and support.

Headspace helps young people aged 12 to 25 years who are going through a tough time and it’s developed a range of resources to support young people affected by COVID-19.

KidsHelpline provides 24/7 phone, web or email counselling support for young people aged 5 to 25 years and they also have special COVID-19 resources.  

Lifeline provides 24/7 support if you, a friend or an adult you know is not coping with a personal crisis or is thinking about self-harm.
If you or someone you know is in serious immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).

Know how to deal with cyberbullying

Cyberbullying happens when someone uses digital technology to harass, humiliate, intimidate or threaten another person. Cyberbullying can happen in online classrooms, on chat and messaging services, by social media, text messages, emails and message boards, or in online forums.

Social exclusion is also a form of cyberbullying. It includes being left out of online conversations, virtual parties, games with friends or other get togethers — not cool right? — and while face-to-face contact is restricted, it may feel particularly bad. We all want to feel connected and know there’s someone we can talk to.

Extra time spent online increases the risk of being exposed to cyberbullying and this can impact our mental health and wellbeing. But cyberbullying is often an extension of the bullying that happens at school. So there’s a chance that heading back to face-to-face classes will be unsettling or upsetting, if there’s a risk of having to deal with a rise in negative behaviour.

So, what can you do if you come across cyberbullying or if you see people being excluded from online group activities?

  • Take action – know how to report cyberbullying if you of someone you know is experiencing it.
  • Be an upstander not a bystander – don’t let cyberbullying slide. It’s OK to call it out.
  • Speak with your friends regularly and check in to see how they are going.
  • Check-in with a teammate or friend from outside your school if you haven’t heard from them in a while. You may like to invite them to a weekly video chat with your friends.

Don’t fall for fake news

While COVID-19 is still a major part of daily news, other world issues and local events are creeping back onto our news feeds and TVs. Making sure you are accessing factual, real-time information is important for being aware of what’s going on around the world and making the right decisions.

It’s always been possible to spread fake news, but self-publishing and social media mean that false or misleading information can be created and shared incredibly fast, reaching stacks of people before anyone has questioned whether it’s true. For example, there have been a lot of false claims that coronavirus can be caused by 5G.

Having a laugh at corona memes and funny posts about current issues and events can help us to process big changes taking place in the world – but it’s important to think carefully about the posts, to check if they are just funny observations or if they are actually spreading false, cruel or discriminatory ideas.

What can you do?

  • When it comes to COVID-19, only trust verified sources. For the most accurate real-time information join the Coronavirus Australia government WhatsApp channel on iOS or Android.
  • Use your critical thinking skills to determine what’s real and what’s fake. This applies to COVID-19, but it also applies to other world news, events and controversial issues affecting societies.
  • Even as restrictions are easing, the longer-term impacts of lockdown are being reported on. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by all the bad news that is still being shared. You can help keep things in perspective by searching for positive stories or taking a break from your feeds. You may like to invite them to a weekly video chat with your friends.

Balance your time online

‘Going to school’ online from home hasn’t been all that bad. We might have had that little bit of extra time to sleep in or even found ourselves being more productive. And even though we’re slowly heading back to the school grounds, we’re probably going to have to continue doing some kind of virtual learning.  

We are also likely to use similar tech tools and platforms in our workplaces as we get older. That means now is the time to get good at managing time online, so it doesn’t take over our lives completely.

Spending most of the day in front of a screen is easy, but too many uninterrupted hours on YouTube, Netflix or the latest games are probably not doing us any good.

Here are some tips to help you improve your online habits:

  • Make a plan — set daily tasks you would like to achieve including study, exercise, socialising and rest. This may help you maintain focus during the day.
  • Set routine breaks — if you are using a device for an hour or more, make sure you take a short break. This could include stretching or a short walk.
  • Turn off notifications for your social media or messaging apps on Apple and Android devices while studying.
  • Monitor or limit your phone use if you are constantly distracted. Many phones have settings that allow you to track how long you spend on apps and set daily usage limits.
  • Try limiting your gaming time if playing is beginning to affect your schoolwork or social life — organise some other activities with friends.
  • Turn your devices off or put them on airplane mode at least an hour before bedtime to ensure you have the best quality sleep.

Be cautious about online relationships

COVID-19 restrictions have made it difficult to start a relationship or keep one going. Dating at a time when the opportunities to sit down and grab some food or go to the cinema are limited isn’t ideal!

Some of us have been maintaining our relationships by spending time ‘together’ on various apps, games and platforms. Others who are old enough have turned to online dating to meet new people.

But there are some big risks with online relationships. These can include someone tricking you into liking them but then making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, someone pressuring you to send nudes, or someone threatening to share intimate images or videos of you.

Understanding how online harms could play out on dating, gaming and social apps can help you spot the risks, prevent online harm and strengthen your digital resilience.

What can it look like?

  • Someone could use another person’s photos or identity in a social profile to trick you into a fake relationship — this is called catfishing.
  • Somebody could share a nude photo of you without your permission — this is called image-based abuse. Watch Kate’s story to learn more.
  • Someone you were in a relationship with could threaten to share intimate images or videos of you unless you get back with them, or send them more intimate images or money — this is called sextortion.
  • You could be playing an online game with someone you have never met before, who asks personal questions and wants to continue chatting with you outside the game, then turns out to be a bit weird — this is called unwanted contact or grooming.

What can you do?

It’s safest not to trust people straight away if you don’t know them very well.  Check the privacy settings on your social media and gaming accounts so people can’t find out about you unless you want them to. Share your favourite music or movie with a new online friend, but don’t give away personal information like where you live or go to school until you actually know someone. 

Also, ask yourself questions like ‘What could go wrong if I share this photo or video with someone?’, ‘Would I be cool with my parents or grandparents seeing it?’,  ‘Would I be OK for this to live on the web forever?

If someone online makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, you can report them to the app or site — most of the links  you need are in The eSafety Guide.  

For more information about what to do if things go wrong, follow this advice:

Remember, if something does go wrong online or someone makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it’s really important to talk to a trusted adult about it, such as one of your parents or an older brother or sister. Their experiences and stories of relationships and intimacy may help to make sense of anything you are unsure about online. Importantly, they can support you to take action if you see or experience any negative online behaviours. You can also reach out to a counselling or support service.

Learn more

For more information about online safety risks, strategies to keep yourself safe and what to do if you find yourself in an unsafe situation, explore eSafety’s pages created by and for young people.

Last updated: 07/09/2022