Tue, 30 Sep 2014 - 21:00
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‘Sexts, Texts and Selfies' - the new book by Susan McLean

The rear cover of the new book ‘Sexts, Texts and Selfies’ notes that ‘Soon enough, every parent will have to discuss online safety with their children’. When you read this excellent book by renowned cyber-safety expert Susan McLean you quickly understand why.

As part of my work in implementing the Abbott Government’s policies to enhance online safety for children, I regularly visit schools and speak with children and teenagers.  When I ask who in the class has been asked by mum or dad to set up a new smartphone or computer, most of the hands go up; I get the same response when I ask who thinks they know more about computers and IT than mum and dad.  But as Ms McLean’s book makes clear, “While kids today are supremely tech-savvy, we shouldn’t confuse this with actual knowledge, an understanding of dangers and risks, cognitive development and maturity.”

McLean tells of her first experience of cyber-bullying when she was a Victorian police officer in 1994. This is an era when internet-connected computers were a relatively new phenomenon – very few homes had PCs (let alone dial-up internet), Windows 95 did not yet exist, and even basic mobile phones were rare – the iPhone was still over a decade away. Yet McLean was struck by how a falling-out between two teenage girls rapidly escalated into a cyber-bullying incident with such severe consequences that the victim’s family was forced to temporarily leave their house.

As this anecdote reveals, bullying over the internet has been around for pretty as long as the internet has been around.  But it has been amplified in recent years by the proliferation of internet-connected devices. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are no longer confined to the classroom or even the family room; on the contrary they are often used by children without adult supervision.

McLean offers a list of top-ten things to keep in mind for parents talking to their children about cyberspace. This is includes simple points like reminding children that cyberspace is a public place, and that once something is online it can never be totally deleted – as well as a reminder that people you meet online might not always really be who they say they are. There is common-sense advice that parenting in cyberspace is no different from parenting in the real world, and that parents need to have an open and honest conversation with their children to help minimise online issues.

The book dedicates a chapter to a “Survival Guide” on cyberbullying. Ms McLean raises many of the issues which came up in our community consultations when the Coalition was developing our policy to enhance online safety for children.  As she says, cyberbullying is “pervasive in nature, incessant, ongoing, and can occur 24/7. It is different from bullying in the real world as by virtue of technology the bully can follow you home and into your house.” She goes on to say that “cyberbullying is a very public humiliation, as many others see what is written or posted, and once a message or comment is posted online, even if the perpetrator deletes it, it is almost impossible to remove all traces of the message.” McLean offers handy advice for parents on how to deal with cyberbullying issues if they arise, and how to watch for signs that children may be the victims of cyberbullying, suffering in silence. She also presents guidance for parents of children who have been the perpetrator of cyberbullying.

This is an problem to which the Abbott Government is responding: we have announced that we intend to have legislation ready to introduce into the Parliament by the end of the year to establish the Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner and give it powers to operate a complaints scheme, backed by legislation, to get harmful cyber-bullying material targeted at an Australian child down from large social media sites. The Children’s e-Safety Commissioner will take a national leadership role for children’s online safety initiatives; it will reach out to social media sites accessible to Australian children and will be a central point of contact within the Australian government on these issues. It will work closely with other relevant agencies of the federal government such as the Australian Federal Police; state and territory police; and with other stakeholders including the internet industry and with those charged with the welfare of children. The Commissioner will administer funding of $7.5 million for online safety programmes in schools and $0.1 million to support Australian-based research and information campaigns on online safety.

But in addition to these new policy measures, there is much that parents can do to help keep their children safe online.  Susan McLean’s ‘Sexts, Texts and Selfies’ is full of useful and practical advice for parents and kids – and it is sure to become a well known and widely used resource for Australian schools, families and children.