by Priscilla Warren
You have seen the headlines before: ‘Online bullying a growing problem’… ‘Teen stalked online’… ‘Accounts hacked online’… ‘Cyberbullying blamed for death’.
Reading such headlines in the news conjures up a parent’s worst fears for their children – that they will be targeted online and mentally, emotionally or physically abused. But is the perception of online social networking really the ‘evil new threat’ portrayed through media headlines, or could it perhaps be a reincarnation of the fear of change that has constantly re-erupted throughout past decades? Together we will look at how social media has taken hold in a generation of ‘cooped up’ children and how education within the family and school setting can provide a safety net approach to what can be a landmine of mis-adventure.
Social networking sites provide an online space to ‘hang out’ with their friends, peers and society at large. The importance of this online space has grown in part, as a reaction to the restrictions placed on children, albeit for ‘their own safety’. In past generations, venturing out into the neighbourhood to explore ‘new worlds’ with freedom was commonplace. Fast forward to the present day, and this idea of sending out your children to explore their neighbourhood, ‘without parental supervision’ holds the stigma of ‘negligent parenting’.
Parents should not to be blamed however as the ‘kill-joy’ of neighbour shenanigans, after all they are only reacting out of fear incited by news media. Have you watched the news lately? You need only watch the first ten minutes of a news broadcast to be convinced the world is full of vicious home invaders, who attack elderly citizens, murder innocent bystanders and then conspire with other ‘thugs’ to join the war with ISIS. This ‘moral panic’ created through a focus on victims and perpetrators, as well as the devastating consequences is rife in media circles. In this culture of ‘bad news is good news’, is it a wonder that parents wrap their children in two layers of cotton wool and three layers of duct tape?
There is another perspective however that may bring some relief to parents. It is the idea that whatever problem we face today is merely a reconstitution of what has already happened in the past. This fear of change, whether it be through new technologies (radio, television, i-books, computers) or a change in culture (women in the workforce, rock’n’roll music, immigration) is a recurrent phenomenon and one that will no doubt repeat itself many times over in our life time. The inherent fear each parent has of what ‘might’ be taking place behind the invisible curtains that veil ‘online spaces’ is mirrored by the fear held by parents of past generations who viewed alternative ‘spaces to hang out’ with friends, such as dance nights, weekend parties, the newest, coolest hangout, whatever that might be – where ever young people congregate without adult supervision. This ‘newest threat’ then becomes ‘less threatening’ in that it is just the same problem, a lack of transparency in what is happening in their child’s life, coming in a different package.
Once this mountain of a problem or ‘Internet threat’ is shrunk down to a problem already encountered by parents, it is more easily dealt with. Just as parents have educated and advised their children on how to conduct themselves wisely in physical spaces to ‘hang out’ like the movies, that then leads on to advice on how to conduct oneself wisely in online spaces, like social networking sites.
A 2012 Australian study, conducted by Jill Burgess and Catherine McLoughlin, looked at what research literature had to say about ‘cyberbullying’ and how these findings have been used to develop e-safety strategies in the Australian context. The definition of ‘cyberbullying’ is generally agreed among researchers as one of social aggression that uses technology as its primary way of engaging with the victim. Willard (2007), as cited in Burgess and McLoughlin (2012, p. 4) provides a list of behaviours that classify cyberbullying:
Flaming: Online fights using electronic messages with angry and vulgar language.
Harassment: Repeatedly sending nasty, mean, and insulting messages.
Denigration: ‘Dissing’ someone online. Sending or posting gossip or rumours about a person to damage his or her reputation or friendships.
Impersonation: Pretending to be someone else and sending or posting material to get that person in trouble or danger or to damage that person’s reputation or friendships.
Outing: Sharing someone’s secrets or embarrassing information or images online.
Exclusion: Intentionally and cruelly excluding someone from an online group.
Cyberstalking: Repeated, intense harassment and denigration that includes threats or creates significant fear (Willard, 2007, pp. 1-2)
With up to 1 in 4 children reporting cyberbullying, it has grown as both a national and global phenomenon. Australia has developed a range of e-safety strategies in defence, to proactively address cyberbullying. These include:
- The Australian Government Stay Smart Online website https://www.staysmartonline.gov.au/
- NAPCAN’s Smart Online Safe Offline (SOSO) online resource http://napcan.org.au/
- Cyber smart (ACMA) http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/schools.aspx
- The ACMA (2008, 2009& 2010) report, Online risk and safety in the digital economy http://www.acma.gov.au/Industry/Internet/Internet-content/Internet-content-complaints/online-risk-safety-reports-internet-content-complaints-i-acma
- A National Cybersafety Pilot Program: 164 schools studied to examine a broad range of questions surrounding the effectiveness of current cybersafety programs, as well as the role of schools, parents and the community in keeping children safe. http://www.education.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/4984/CybersafetyProgramInformation.pdf
Educating oneself about the current resources available in the fight against cyberbullying empowers both parents and educators about how best to advise and guide their children and students in the online world. I have linked each of the strategies above to their prospective websites and encourage you to visit them. Of note, the SOSO’s Cyber Bullying – Bystander Behaviour, with its YouTube video and educational game Web Warriors is a great example of a current resource that has been greatly received by Australian youth (10-15 years of age) and has made an impact on bringing awareness of the impact of cyberbullying on others (Burgess & McLoughlin, 2012, p.7).
We all have our part to play in keeping our children safe in this media-orientated world. As both a parent and an educator, I say let’s come alongside our children and help them (and ourselves) learn the ropes of what it means to be a responsible and safe digital citizen.
Burgess, J., & McLoughlin, C. (2012). Investigating cyberbullying: Emerging research and e-safety strategies within families and communities. Communities, Children and Families Australia, 6(1), pp 1-12.
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