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Cybersafety issues affecting children and young people

CHAIR —Welcome. Thank you for attending. Before proceeding, I remind you that this is a public hearing and is being recorded by Hansard and the audio is being broadcast. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House and the Senate. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. At the conclusion of your evidence, would you please ensure that Hansard has the opportunity to clarify any matters with you. I invite you to make an opening statement.

Dr McGrath —The position of the Australian Psychological Society is that communication technologies are amazingly positive and wondrous tools, particularly for young people, in terms of the learning that can occur in using them, the social connections that they enable people to make and the organisational skills that they can help develop. I would like to add budgeting skills, but that does not appear to be something that comes out of young people’s use of communication technologies. They are also useful tools for specific kinds of young people. For example, young people with Asperger’s syndrome or with social phobia, whose social lives face to face are perhaps a little more limited or more challenging, can use these tools to enhance their social connections.

At the same time, there are a multitude of cyber risks. These are causing concern in the community. We need to determine how we approach helping young people to learn to manage those cyber risks but also try to minimise those that can be minimised. The overall solution lies more with education, from the point of view of both those who are commissioned to provide that—such as teachers and other community workers—and parents. That also has implications for the training of parents as well. The approach that is taken is that some filtering may have some small positive effects but that most of the issues are best addressed by very intensive education of young people, teachers and parents. The community also needs to part of that process. Young people need to part of that process, because if we do not listen to what they have to say about what works and does not work, we are going to go down some dead ends.

Children and young people who are considered high risk in other areas—such as those who have early signs of a mental illness, such as ADHD, or those who are already engaging in risky behaviour which possibly reflects a conduct disorder and a tendency towards antisocial personality disorder or those who are depressed—are at a higher risk of engaging in less cybersafe activities. They are more likely to respond to contact from inappropriate people, access the kinds of sites that we might not feel are suitable for them and use communication technologies to behave in ways that are quite aggressive towards others. We have the problem of the general young community coupled with the problems of the subset of those young people who are particularly at risk of misusing or being misused by communication technologies.

CHAIR —Thank you. Could we start with the subset of people who are particularly at risk. What can be done that is not being done in relation to addressing the issues for these people?

Dr McGrath —What we have not yet gone on to is the notion that there might be some intensive and targeted small group work that could be done in schools, youth centres, hospitals and mental health centres. That small group work would address these issues in a way that these young people at risk are more likely to respond to. That is a challenge. We have not addressed that yet. We are still at the level of working out how to get the overall community and young people in general to respond to this.

CHAIR —Whose responsibility would that be? Where do you see that responsibility fitting it? First of all, have they already been identified or are they still to be identified? There would probably be two groups there. Then who would put in place the type of program that you are talking about?

Dr McGrath —That is an interesting and complex question.

CHAIR —You might want to have a think about that. Perhaps you can come back to us at the end or even after the hearing on to that particular question.

Dr McGrath —I will address it at least superficially now. We already have some idea of who the young people at risk are, because of the early intervention work that is being done so ably in various states, community settings and educational settings. The absolute rule of thumb from all of the research is that the earlier that you target changing the behaviours and attitudes of at risk kids the more likely you are to be successful. By that, we mean at the four-year-old level and definitely at the five-year-old level when they first enter primary school. So we often have an indication of who the kids are who are engaging in antisocial behaviour or whose social difficulties are such that they may not understand the impact of what they are doing online. It is harder to identify the young people who have problems with anxiety and depression. They do not tend to be more obvious until perhaps late primary or early secondary. Although with some of the anxiety disorders you will see behaviours in four- or five-year olds that would indicate that this is going to be a problem—such as difficulty sleeping apart from parents or school separation difficulties—the kinds of anxiety and depression problems that would place a young person a bit more at risk tend not to occur until early puberty. In particular, those individuals are likely to be targeted for cyberbullying or for cyber misuse—people who want to use them for their own ends. But we cannot target them as early. Whose responsibility is it? That is a debate between psychologists and all the other people who work with kids.

CHAIR —At what level should be taken? Who should be addressing this issue?

Dr McGrath —The expectation from here on in is that all schools will be providing a cybersafety curriculum, whether it be separate or embedded. That would vary from state to state. We were delighted that the National Safe Schools Framework that my colleagues and I developed for the Commonwealth was yesterday signed off by MCEECDYA. We are really feeling positive that that is going to make a big difference to schools. We developed it to make explicit the things that need to be done in the overall area of safety, including face-to-face safety. We have tried to make it as practical as possible, so we have given links to all of the materials and organisations that can be supportive. We have provided check lists asking whether people have done certain things. As such, we would expect that from here on in all schools will include some kind of cybersafety curriculum component, one way or another.

Senator PRATT —Is there a danger of cybersafety being streamlined off to one side rather than it being seen holistically as part of well being generally. I note that your recommendations seek to make sure that issues such as homophobia, racism, discrimination against young people with a disability and sexualisation of girls need to be looked at holistically. In terms of the reasons why someone might be targeted or bullied, clearly the environment in which that takes place is very much only one part of the question. I would worry that in having a cyber safety curriculum you are biasing the frame within which you use to look at these issues.

Dr McGrath —That is a significant concern. We have addressed that in the National Safe Schools Framework. We have strongly suggested that it be embedded and that there be work on respectful relationships, homophobia and racial discrimination. The teachers also need to provide models of non-discriminatory behaviour. The issues need to be addressed through literature and other kinds of analysis. That has very much been at the forefront of our minds in planning that.

Senator PRATT —The safe schools framework is clearly a good example. But states have an emphasis on their duty of care for students in a physical sense. At the Commonwealth level, we get caught up in debates about filters and cybersafety. How do we make sure that the government is driving a holistic and localised response that enables schools to take some responsibility and create good partnerships so that they can develop the kinds of solutions that are right for them? I worry that we might be creating too many different layers to our responses, even though a multilayered response is important.

Dr McGrath —From what I can see when I look at the bigger picture, the majority of states are embedding these foci into what they are doing. An example would be Victoria, which will from next year be providing $10.6 million for all state schools and 300 lower income private schools to implement the e-Smart Project, which is another thing that we were involved in developing the basis for. That will provide a bridge for them. Schools will be able to use that to do something. They can also take some of their well being activities across that bridge. Sometimes the answer is not reinventing the wheel but using what is available. There are other states that are showing interest in that as well. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy provided funded to run the pilot across all states. That is one solution.

The other solution is a lot of conferencing work with multistate involvement so that different states can showcase what they are doing to other states. But it is one of the tricker bits, because you often get the rhetoric about what should happen about cybersafety but there are all the issues that underpin cybersafety and general safety as well.

There is a difference between that and what actually happens. That is why the e-Smart Program was set up, to be a bridge. It aligns with the National Safe Schools Framework as well. Also, it has with it a social awareness campaign which is along the lines of Sun Smart. You tick off whether or not you have done these things. This campaign, just as the SunSmart campaign did, will hopefully create a lot of awareness. One of the things that happens if you create community awareness and awareness amongst parents is that you find that they are often very good at then saying to their schools, because many of them are very actively involved, ‘What is happening? Are we doing such and such? If not, what is it that we are doing instead?’ I would be hopeful that a broad community campaign, coupled with having these things which are already built and which can be then adopted to what is happening in a particular state, should make a difference.

Senator PRATT —Where do you think the gaps are?

Dr McGrath —I think the gaps are in teacher training. It is particularly true that we have a large number of young teachers graduating at the moment, and having graduated in the last 10 years, and quite a large number of teachers who are at the other end, going towards retirement. There is not as much in the middle. So sometimes you have this big divide between the generations.

Senator PRATT —Is that a generational gap?

Dr McGrath —It is partly a generational gap but it is also an experiential gap. It is by no means universal. I will go back to a study that was done by the University of Sydney and the New South Wales government together, I think, which found that 61 per cent of all mothers aged 45 to 65 had a Facebook page. That blew me away because I would not have expected that many people of that age group to have that.

Senator PRATT —There was a witness this morning who talked about those people who are digital natives and those who are digital immigrants. I would add that there are those who just have not arrived.

Dr McGrath —Yes. I think that parents and older adults are a lot more savvy in general than perhaps people believe. But part of the problem is that they do not necessarily see a use for some of the Facebook type sites because that is not the way they have run their social lives. So it is not so much a failure to understand its technological usage or to see the use of the other ones, it is mainly concern such as: ‘Why would you want to go home from school, having spent all day at school with your friends, and then get on MSN and talk again? That is ridiculous.’ I say to them, ‘Did you go home and get on the phone when you were the same age?’ And they say, ‘Oh, yes.’ They do not quite understand that it is an equivalent to what they were doing. I think that the research from ACMA would support this. There are more parents who are savvy than we would suspect, but they are not savvy, necessarily, about how to help their children get wiser about cybersafety. I think sometimes that divide between the digital natives and the digital immigrants is a little artificial. It may have been true five years ago, but I do not think it is as true now.

Senator PRATT —Some people migrate pretty well.

Dr McGrath —Yes, I think so. I guess some people have to.

Senator PRATT —I want to ask you what best examples of that practical support to parents exist that you are aware of.

Dr McGrath —The straight parent education sessions are very valuable. I am particularly taken with the ones run by ACMA. We also, at Deakin University, launched the preservice training that they did. I do not know what it is that they do so well, but they hit the spot with the preservice teachers, they hit the spot with the practising teachers, they hit the spot with the parents and they hit the spot with the kids. So, whatever they are doing, they should bottle it and sell it. That is an example of good practice.

Our dilemma always is that a lot of parents do not turn up. We know the reasons for his. It is quite clear what the reasons are. Firstly, parents are now much busier than they used to be, with so many parents racing to pick up their children from child care by six o’clock and finding it almost impossible to get somewhere by 7.30, feed everybody and sort everybody out. So there is that issue.

The second issue is some parents do not see if their children are not engaging in any of these behaviours and they think, ‘What’s the big deal? I think I know all that.’ Probably they do not know as much as they think they do. Thirdly, I think many of them are really frightened. They do not want to hear about the things that can happen and they find it more comfortable to remain in a state of ignorance—in the same way that parents are not overly pushy about asking their children questions about their sexual life when they start to become sexually active because they do not want to know. If they knew some of it, they might be in a situation where they have to address it or show a reaction to it. It is a bit of head in the sand for some parents.

Senator PRATT —What about the idea of something like cyber-aware mobile phone plans? Parents buy their children mobile phones or let them have plans. They could have age-appropriate guidelines. When you get your bill that might help you ask some of the right kinds of questions.

Dr McGrath —That is a possibility. Again, there is always that issue of: how much do you snoop on your kids and how much is appropriate parenting behaviour? I have walked that line with my three. There is a difficulty, for example, in doing that because we did not necessarily expect parents in previous generations to listen in on the phone or monitor the phone records of the home phone, which sometimes they could get if they asked for it. It could be a trigger—you are talking about if they are accessing inappropriate sites, for example. I can still remember as a parent discovering on the home phone the odd number that did not start with the normal numbers and not knowing what to do. Is it a common thing that the child is doing; how old are they; should you read the riot act; should you risk your relationship with them, which might be very good because one little thing has happened and you are making a big production out of it when in fact it was just a little exploration? I do not think I have an answer to that.

Senator PRATT —The technology changes quite quickly and the solution one month might be quite different six months later.

Dr McGrath —That interacts with the age of the young person because, what they are doing at 13, they might not be doing later on and vice versa. One of the concerns is—and it is a major concern and I do not think any of us have an answer as to what to do about it—that young people can get into sites, which they are not the right age to get into, very easily. We know huge numbers of kids are going into Facebook and MySpace. Obviously, it is a bit like the older brother buying alcohol for the younger brother that there is a bit of older sibling help in that. Sometimes parents agree to it, but there must be some way to ask for some kind of proof of age before you can enrol in these. You cannot go to a shop and buy cigarettes or alcohol without showing proof of age.

Senator PRATT —For example, there are some mobile phone apps you can only download and buy if you are over 18 and if you have provided a credit card. If a parent is fairly oblivious and provides a credit card so that their child can buy the odd iPhone app, they might be buying adult content and the parent may not be aware that they have crossed that boundary.

Dr McGrath —It is more complex than just the child wanting to access Facebook or MySpace to talk to friends. One parent said to me, ‘How do you deal with this situation? My youngest is 13, not really old enough to go on Facebook. She has got several cousins who are in their early 20s who invited her to be a friend on the Facebook page. She said, “What do you reckon, Mum and Dad?” So we let her do that but then we snooped and discovered that the 20-year-olds were talking about and discussing highly inappropriate things. We had never thought about what she would be exposed to, not on the part of the cousins but on the part of all the people who are connected to the cousins.’

I do not know that parents always understand the implications of a simple ‘Okay, you can do that’ in the bigger picture. It would certainly be helpful, I think, for those implications to be spelt out a lot more. But at the same time we should not terrify parents. If you terrify them, a lot of them will back off and think, ‘I don’t want to know.’ Also it creates conflict between them and their children, which is not necessarily productive.

CHAIR —On a different issue, we have had a number of contributors to the inquiry who have views on internet addiction. I think it extends further than the internet; it extends to online games and general computer games that children use these days. What has any research shown with regard to that? We asked one person this morning and they said that there was no research that was done really to establish internet addiction as such.

Dr McGrath —I would concur with that. It is tempting to talk about there being a syndrome, because it looks so obvious, but the reality is that we already have, in the DSM-IV, which is the mental health disorders diagnostic bible, various categories under which addiction occurs—for example, bipolar disorder, ADHD. So addictive behaviours per se—and we are talking about gambling, smoking or in some cases just television watching—are covered elsewhere. It does not seem logical to any of the people who are researching and writing about it in the Western world to create a brand-new syndrome around a specific type of addictive behaviour, when it is just another one of the addictive behaviours that are already identified as occurring. There is a strong push, however, in the literature, in the Asian journals, for calling it a separate thing. Their circumstances are different, because most of the people who use the machines have to go out to an internet cafe to use them. As I understand it, there is far less personal ownership of the equipment. Therefore it is perhaps a little more dramatic. The odd story comes out about how somebody died because they did not go to the toilet or drink any water or have any food or have any sleep for 36 hours. You never know whether that is a sensationalist story or whether it was not quite that clear-cut. People want to panic and say, ‘We’ve got this mental health syndrome called internet addiction,’ but there is absolutely no reason to have that any more than we used to have TV addiction when TV first came out. There were lots of people who said that we had to have a new category in DSM-IV called TV addiction. Everyone else said, ‘How different is it from other addictive behaviours?’ The bottom line is that it is about not being able to stop doing something.

Senator PRATT —TV addiction seems like texting, for example, or a little bit like playing the poker machines. With texting, you have got that high and low—you are waiting for that positive or negative emotional feedback from people via a text message, whether it is because you are in a relationship with someone or whatever. So the technology can affect the nature of your response. There would be some people who would be quite obsessive about that.

Dr McGrath —Yes, I can see that there are some differences, as you suggest. At the same time, to some extent you are talking about just communication difficulties. That sounds like anybody who has ever waited for their date to call back after the date the previous night—‘Is the phone going to ring? Oh my God’—and been up, down, up, down et cetera. Again, it is certainly addictive kinds of behaviour, so some people would be more prone to doing that than others, but I do not see that it is any different from what you get with poker machines.

CHAIR —Are you saying that, if a person has a condition that already exists, then, yes, they could become addicted to the internet or online gaming, just as they could become addicted to anything else, but that the internet itself—the technology involved and using that technology—does not create the addiction?

Dr McGrath —I think that is exactly what I am saying. It has, as Senator Pratt noted, some similarities with those behaviours but, again, it is no different from poker machines or roulette et cetera.

CHAIR —So the prevalent use of the internet and other technologies would therefore see an increase in addictive behaviour because it is so widespread?

Dr McGrath —We do not have any evidence that I know of to support that. You would think that common sense would dictate that that would be so. On the other hand, those who get their highs out of gambling may not find that texting or even online gambling has the same pleasure as being in the ambience of a casino et cetera. It would be hard to know. It is certainly devising one more way in which you can become addicted to a particular behaviour.

CHAIR —Tracking of footprints has been raised by a number of witnesses. There are ways that something they put on the internet can be tracked back to them if, say, they are bullying. They need to understand that they are not anonymous out there. Also, there can be situations where the perpetrators of bullying go on the internet and become the person who is bullied. I suppose there are three issues there. Let us take them one at a time. We will take the third one first. In the schoolyard or wherever when a person is bullied they become the victim. Some of the witnesses have said that they then are the ones who become the bullies on the internet because they think they are anonymous.

Dr McGrath —There is certainly a category of kids who, because they usually have some ADHD type characteristics and are hot tempered, are more likely to be picked as targets of bullying. They give off fireworks, so they are a good target to choose. Some of those kids will then decide to retaliate by bullying others. However, it is a very small group. I think to some extent people like to think that kids who bully are kids who have been bullied, but the group is very small.

However, the internet allows you to retaliate. I think that is a different thing from bullying back. For example, if you are getting a barrage of really offensive text messages or are having things said about you online and you then get really angry about it, it is more readily accessible for you to fire them back. The advice we always give to kids is: do not fire back, because it makes the other people feel self-justified. They say, ‘Look at the stuff he has said about us,’ not understanding that they have done six or seven days of it and this person has only responded once. So it makes it easier to retaliate. Whereas if you were in face-to-face bullying, you would be looking around and saying, ‘There are six of them and only one of me so, even though I feel really miffed about what is being said about me, I am not silly enough to retaliate because I could very well end up being seriously hurt.’

CHAIR —That was one of the questions. The other one was in relation to young people putting out information now that can in the future be put back to them. They put information on the internet that down the track may cause them some harm career wise or relationship wise. How do we get through to young people that it is very different from how things have been previously, that some information just should not be out there and that the consequences of it down the track—in 10 or 15 years time—could be quite serious? How do you get that through to 13-, 16- and 19-year-olds?

Dr McGrath —I think the best way is through case studies that are not sensationalised. Again, most of the research of the past has suggested that sensationalist approaches do not work. They just tend to cause people to detach from the whole issue. So I think by using case studies of things that have happened.

The reality is also that the Australian Federal Police, for example, rarely intervene in any of these cases despite the fact that, more often than not, what young people are doing when they are bullying online is illegal. It is an e-crime to use a mobile phone or an internet carrier to harass, deliberately cause distress, stalk et cetera. In practice, they tend not to respond. What parents tell us is: ‘We went to the local police station and they said, “It’s a federal issue.” We contacted the Australian Federal Police and they said, “Let’s just leave it and see how it goes,” and they’re reluctant to act.’ If they do act they wisely—because they are dealing with young people—they take a fairly softly-softly approach. Therefore, I think around the traps there is an awareness that a lot of this notion that ‘we can find out who it is and track you down’ is not believed because in practice it often does not happen. However, if you keep your ears to the ground you find out all sorts of interesting stuff that is happening. For example, a number of private investigation firms now have an electronics section whereby you can pay them to go online and find out who it is who is causing you distress or putting up stuff about you et cetera. So we have private investigators who have taken over where the police perhaps are less able.

CHAIR —Legally they can do that?

Dr McGrath —That is an interesting question. I do not know the answer. If you look online, if you put in ‘private investigator electronic investigation’, you will be very surprised. The second thing we know is that a couple of recruitment companies, and I will not name them, are saying to companies things like: ‘We can help you find out about this applicant. We can send somebody into your organisation to get to know them, find out about them and then get onto their Facebook page and find out what is happening.’ I suspect that could well be described as possibly illegal. But they also say that, even though it is illegal to check on anybody’s CV or application for a job by checking up online, probably over 85 per cent of organisations do so often and get quite good hits.

My other concern about this is that I am worried that if we get out a message that says, ‘It is the end of the world if something you foolishly put up about yourself when you 13, particularly a semi-nude picture, will be up there forever and it will come back to bite you,’ then we are going to get lots of kids who become deeply depressed and self-harm as a result of that. I am very concerned about that, if they have done it and they find out afterwards that it really was dumb. It is a silly thing to do, in the same way that you should never have a webcam in your bedroom—and it is amazing how many parents do not understand how a boyfriend at one end and a girlfriend at the other end, both with webcams, can have interesting times with the door shut. But if they think it is going to destroy their lives it can lead to incredible depression and occasionally self-harm. That is why I think going down the path of wise education, with warnings but not necessarily terrifying sensationalism, is the way to go.

CHAIR —What would your view be about an advertising campaign on awareness about cyberbullying? Is that one way that we could get through to young people?

Dr McGrath —That is one way, and certainly that is part of the eSmart project.

CHAIR —Would that be on the net, on television and on radio, or would one be preferred?

Dr McGrath —There is already some interesting stuff out there—for example, the ACMA stuff, which I think is terrific. There is also the Raising Children Network stuff, for which I am an evaluator, and there are some really good tip sheets. The Australian Psychological Society has a tip sheet about how to keep yourself safe. But if we are talking about trying to convince the community not to be cruel and not to take advantage of other people then it probably has to be a broader campaign, as you are describing.

CHAIR —What would be one thing that could be put in place that would make a difference in terms of cybersafety for young people that does not already exist?

Dr McGrath —Again, I think there could be more intensive opportunities for parents to become aware of the issues above and beyond what is already available. One very wise principal of my acquaintance said that the only way this could be done is to have kids present about the issues to parents. In doing so you get the double learning but, at the same time, parents are more likely to come and see their children perform. And if, for example, the children were doing a presentation about cybersafety and then they stopped, for a freeze frame, and said, ‘What we had to check on before we did this was A, B, C and we were very careful not to do E and F,’ then that could be a really engaging way of doing it. It would be getting the kids to teach the parents, but in an engaging way as opposed to a preachy way.

CHAIR —On that issue of the children and young people, do you think it is worth while for young people to appear before this committee if it was not to be on Hansard but in private session?

Dr McGrath —Yes. They tell you different things. Listening to my children, who are not teenagers anymore, I say, ‘Do nasty things get said on Facebook when you are all talking on Facebook?’ and they go, ‘Yeah, but it is the same idiot who will say it to you face-to-face. You just go “You’re an idiot”.’ So quite often the stuff that we think is very destructive, if young people have some idea of how to keep it in perspective it is not as destructive as we think. I think absolutely, and also to find out how young children are getting access to some of the materials they ought not to be getting access to. Is it older siblings who are enabling them? Is it parents who are turning a blind eye because they find it difficult to say no to their children? I think they would be very helpful from that point of view.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Dr McGrath. If any committee members have further questions, the secretariat will be in touch. Thank you for appearing today.

Proceedings suspended from 3.06 pm to 3.16 pm