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Cybersafety issues affecting children and young people

CHAIR —I would now like to welcome the representative from the Australian Parents Council, Mr Ian Dalton, to the table. Mr Dalton, thank you very much for attending today. Before proceeding I would like to remind you that this is a public hearing and it is being recorded by Hansard and it is being audio 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 it warrants the same respect as proceedings of both the House and the Senate. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and it may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Do you wish to make any introductory remarks?

Mr Dalton —I do not, really, because I believe that you have the submission that we put in in June of last year, which basically covers all the areas that we would like to or that we feel need commenting on at this point in time. What I would like to focus on maybe, this morning, is parents. Our submission talks a lot about engaging parents and making them a part of the process of ensuring that young people are safe online. There are many and varied ways that people attempt to engage parents. Some of them are successful and some are not. I would like to address that at some stage.

CHAIR —Mr Dalton, we have, I think, at every public hearing had the issue raised or raised the issue of parent involvement with regard to cybersafety and how we parents can best be involved in relation to this particular issue. Perhaps we would start at that point and if you would like to respond to that and then we can go to questions.

Mr Dalton —I guess one of the major concerns that we see or that are raised for us in things that we see are the fact that all too often with initiatives such as this national initiative organisations and government try to do things to and for parents instead of taking an approach of doing it with them. There are often attempts made to communicate with parents which, with all the best intent, try to get a message across but all too often it is not in language that is accessible to parents. Whilst you do not need to talk down to parents, it is a very difficult art to frame stuff up in a language that is accessible to parents across the board without being either patronising or talking at such a simple level that you offend people.

I guess what I am saying is that the national parents organisations—both APC and our counterpart in the state schools, the Council of State School Organisations—have many years of experience in developing tools to communicate with parents. We think we do it particularly well and it is a constant source of frustration when stuff is brought to us that has already been printed and published in a form that we do not believe is accessible. As a result there are a lot of resources out there for parents that are left on shelves in schools or that go home and are not read. So what we like to do is be engaged in the process of developing support materials for parents from the start so that we can help shape and inform the development of those materials so that when they go out to the parents we can be very confident that they will be talking in the right language.

CHAIR —So what is the best vehicle for distributing information to parents? We have heard evidence that very often when you try and get information to parents via schools it ends up in the bottom of the school bag and those of us who are parents can probably vouch for that. Are we talking about online information or information being sent out in hard copy from schools?

Mr Dalton —I think you are talking about a combination of things. I think cybersafety is a classic example of how many schools are already doing fantastic stuff in this area. Holding parent evenings, getting out to parents and providing them with information around what they need to do to try and ensure the safety of their children and how they can work with the school to ensure that the child’s IT use is informed and safe. Other schools do not do it so well. Parents also are not a homogenous group, of course, and so what works well for one group of parents might not work for another. So very much this sort of engagement that we talk about is largely constructed on a school-by-school basis so that you are encouraging school communities to invite parents in to help shape responses to things like cybersafety from the beginning, so that whatever is done to try and communicate with parents in that school community is responding to the needs of that community and not a good idea being imposed from outside.

CHAIR —How do we go about engaging parents in relation to the issue of cybersafety when, as we know, you have parent-teacher interviews and the parents that come very often are the parents that you do not necessarily need to see and the ones that do not attend are those that would probably benefit? If you have a parent evening on the issue of cybersafety, how do you ensure that you actually get those who perhaps are parents of children in the high-risk group to attend?

Mr Dalton —This is a very difficult question, and I guess that I have to approach it from somewhat of a broader context than just cybersafety. There has been a lot of research developed over the last 40 years that talks about parental engagement and getting parents involved in the process of schooling. One of the things that we find these days is that schools over the years, for all the right reasons in most cases, have taken over a lot of the roles that used to be the role of family: things like giving breakfast to kids—just that sort of simple stuff. If we have seen a social problem where parents have not been fulfilling their responsibilities then schools have often stepped into the breach and taken that over. That has had a result, I think, and the research is showing this in a lot of these instances around—well, you can take it now—driver safety; I think cybersafety would be a part of it, as would physical health and wellbeing and school education per se. A lot of parents now see that they do not have a real role in that and that schools do that: ‘We don’t have to worry about that because schools will do it.’ Part of the challenge here is for us to build into the way that we do things methodologies that will start to help and encourage and support parents to reclaim that territory that they have abdicated to schools.

Therefore, what you would really need to do to engage those parents you are talking about requires somewhat of a cultural shift in the way that we do schooling in Australia. It is not just a simple task that we can go out and grab them. APC runs a program for Indigenous parents aimed at engaging Indigenous parents in the schooling of their children. One of the things we find in that, for example—and this is backed up in research in disadvantaged communities overseas—is that a lot of the reason why parents are not engaged is not that they do not want to be or they have some sort of antipathy towards the school or the issue under concern, but it is really that they do not see that they have a role. Once you can start to talk to parents and tell them that they have a role and the way that they can fulfil that role—some simple things that they can do to actively engage—the results are quite astounding.

There are states in America at the moment where the parent-teacher interview, for example, is being transformed. It is not about the teacher telling the parent how the student is performing and what the teacher is doing. What they are doing is that the parent-teacher interview is a conference where the teacher and the parent look at how the student is performing. They set goals: ‘What would we like the student to be doing by the end of the year? ‘This is what I can do as a teacher at school about this. Now, what do you think you can do as the parent?’ This is what they are finding once parents get switched on to the fact that they can do something, and we see it in our Indigenous parents—our Indigenous parents; that is a terrible saying, is it not? Even alerting people who have had a bad schooling experience, who do not have a relationship with school and do not see it as being all that important, once you help them to understand—and it is simple things like cooking the meal where you talk about the colours of the vegetables, counting the number of potatoes or just simple little exercises like that—they are actually engaging with their children’s education and establishing an environment of support for their children’s learning. They are more than willing to be a part of that and love being a part of it.

I suppose the answer to your question is that the way that we engage parents, firstly, will be different in different places depending upon the community that they are in. Secondly, it will require really helping them to understand that they have a role to play—that their role is a valuable role—and giving them some simple tools and support where they can fulfil that role. I think that particularly the area of cybersafety is a really complicated one, because it is an area where even parents—myself, for example—who you think you are fairly au fait with what is going on in the IT world, really at many levels are babes in the dark.

There are constantly new technologies and new ways of doing things at the moment such that I am still at the ‘in awe’ stage with what is going on. I just learnt a new one yesterday. Now you can take a photo of a type of butter on your mobile phone and use some program and find out where it is made and what the ingredients are. This sort of stuff is coming out all the time. So, for a lot of parents, I think, this area is a really grey area, and in some cases I think it is probably akin, if you like, to sex education. It is becoming one of those dark holes where parents fear to tread in many instances.

CHAIR —We have found that in many instances in discussions throughout the duration of the committee. A majority of young people do not actually speak to their parents about the issue and have not had a discussion with their parents about cybersafety. I take your point.

Senator BARNETT —Mr Dalton, thank you for being here. You have come a long way from Launceston.

Mr Dalton —It is a long drive, as you know.

Senator BARNETT —It is my home town. Can you tell us a bit more about the council. I know you had a brief introduction, but can you just tell us a bit more about the council and your role.

Mr Dalton —Yes. The Australian Parents Council has been around since 1962 and it grew out of the Goulburn incident and the fight for funding for non-government schools. That is where it evolved from. In the early years it was very much a political organisation, providing representation and advocacy for the parents of non-government school students. But in probably the last 15 years it has started to move more into also providing, developing and delivering programs that are aimed at encouraging parents to engage with and support their children’s learning, and to understand that in their role as primary educators they have a keen function to play in the education and academic development of their children.

Senator BARNETT —You interact with the various governments—Commonwealth, state and territory governments?

Mr Dalton —The Australian Parents Council itself deals predominantly with the Commonwealth government, but, because we are a federated structure, our affiliates out in the states and territories deal with the state and territory organisations.

Senator BARNETT —Who would your affiliate be Tasmania?

Mr Dalton —The Tasmanian Catholic Schools Parents and Friends Federation. We do not have an affiliate per se in the independent sector in Tasmania, and that varies a little bit around the country, where we have a Catholic affiliate in one state and an independent in another.

Senator BARNETT —Where I am coming to is that every state and territory has a different system. We all love our kids and want the best for them, but there is a different system that applies and I am wondering if, from your national perspective, you would care to share with the committee—if you have one—whether there is a particular state or territory that is perhaps doing it better in terms of cybersafety education and training than others. If not, that is fine, but I thought with your national perspective you might be able to give us some view.

Mr Dalton —I probably need clarification on whether you want to know the ones that are doing it better or the ones who think they are doing it better.

Senator BARNETT —Okay. You answer the question the best way you can.

Mr Dalton —It would appear to me from the feedback that I have had that Queensland is probably doing some good stuff. Yes, they are very good.

Senator BARNETT —In that regard, can you point to any particular codes, guidelines and policy documents that you think are very good in terms of cybersafety and education in this area?

Mr Dalton —In Queensland they have a structure where they have a parent advisory—I cannot remember the actual terminology—where the three parent organisations for the Catholic sector, the independent sector and the government sector come together regularly to meet and talk with the Queensland department around issues of concern. My understanding is that they have developed some quite good resources in recent times around cybersafety, so I think they would be worthwhile.

Senator BARNETT —We will track it down. If you have any advice to us on that, just let us know.

Mr Dalton —Certainly.

CHAIR —Just for the record, Mr Dalton, South Australia also has some fantastic resources through their education department, and we have had them as a witness and taken their resources on board as well.

Mr Dalton —Okay.

CHAIR —Do we have anyone from another state that would like to—

Senator BARNETT —Mr Dalton, in terms of cyberbullying, we all know it has increased over the last decade. Firstly, have you got any evidence or research that supports that and, secondly, how big a problem—how big an issue—is it at the moment as far as you are concerned?

Mr Dalton —As we say in our submission, we think that it is probably reflective of the general increase in bullying and aggressive behaviours socially, but that cyberbullying fits into that broader context and is not in and of itself growing exponentially. The other indication that we have, as we say in our submission, is that those children who are susceptible to bullying and aggressive behaviours in the general sort of sphere also seem to be the ones who are vulnerable in respect of cyberbullying. That is going to be a real challenge, of course, because in a lot of cases I think those children who are most susceptible are those who probably do not have as close and supportive a family environment as we would like to see; they are children who come from fractured families and families where there is quite a deal of dysfunction. How you address that, I think, is going to be an issue that is going to require very deep consideration.

Senator BARNETT —We have an example in a submission, and the identities are confidential so I am not going to share that. It starts off:

Since May 2010, my daughter has been subjected to a sustained and malicious attack by a group of peers from her former high school. The campaign consisted of harassment, verbal threats, stalking, threatening texts and threats on Facebook and included a physical assault.

She referred the matter to the police. There are five court appearances and a number of restraining orders put in place. This is pretty serious stuff involving a 15-year-old girl. How extensive is this sort of thing throughout Australia? This is a Tasmanian case study.

Mr Dalton —I think it is quite extensive and certainly the feedback that we get indicates that it is an area of significant concern to parents. We know that when schools put on information evenings for parents around cybersafety they are often very popular. There would appear to be a demand there for parents to know what they can do. There is no doubt that it is a significant problem, but I think, once again, we need to keep sight of the fact that it is also a part of the broader social problem of increases in bullying and aggressive behaviours anyway. I think that it probably needs to be addressed within that broader context and not addressed selectively, as it were, and apart from that.

Senator BARNETT —I know we are tight for time and I will pass over to the chair after this final question. We heard from the education department this morning that there was a 95 per cent compliance rate with the conditions of use where the parents sign up. What about the other five per cent? Do you have concerns about those five per cent of the kids whose families or parents do not sign the conditions of use? What is to be with these, obviously, substantial numbers of kids who either cannot access the technology or have what we heard this morning was some sort of issue around supervision of their use of the technology?

Mr Dalton —I was sitting at the back when you had that discussion with the previous witnesses, and that was interesting to me because I would be worried not only about the five per cent who are not being signed up for but also about the level of awareness amongst the 95 per cent as to what they are signing and what they understand that to mean. That is something that warrants some really very good research to see what is happening there. I suspect it is a bit like NAPLAN, as it were; parents know that their kids participate in it, but that is probably the extent of their understanding and, in some cases, their interest. I would imagine that what happens in respect of that five per cent would, again, vary from school to school, but some people at some schools would address that very well and others would not address it very well at all.

I think it is an area that requires, firstly, some investigation as to whether parents really know and understand what they are signing up to and what that means in terms of their responsibilities and, secondly, getting some understanding as to why those other five per cent are not signing. What is the background to that? Is it a conscious decision or are they just not wanting to? Often with things like that it is just that they cannot be bothered to do it as opposed to not wanting to.

CHAIR —Or the form is in the bottom of the schoolbag.

Mr Dalton —Yes, that is right. That is a really interesting statistic, I found, in the size both of the cohort of parents who are signing it and of the cohort who are not. That would be really worth investigating.

Mr ZAPPIA —Mr Dalton, thank you for your submission. In your submission, which I noticed was put together in June last year, I think, you refer to a national survey being undertaken as one of the strategies that ought to be implemented. Are you aware that this committee has now, in fact, made an online survey available, and do you have any comments in respect of the nature of that survey?

Mr Dalton —I have not seen it, to tell you the truth. So, no, I was not aware.

CHAIR —In relation to Mr Zappia’s question, on the issue of the survey, yours is specifically a survey targeted to parents. I have to say in response to the online survey that the committee has put online we have had some parents say, ‘There needs to be a parent survey.’ Obviously they have discussed it with their children. The survey that the committee has online is actually one with students. It has gone through the schools. Schools have been alerted to. It has also been advertised on social networking sites. How would you get a survey to parents in relation to cybersafety? How would you see that? Would it be through the school? Would it be on social networking sites? Would it be through other forms of advertising? How would you best access parents?

Mr Dalton —As I said before, there are a number of strategies that you could look at using and you would need to use a combination of them, I think, of going through schools. Also, there are a number of websites out there—one, for example, is YourKidsEd—that have been established by other people around engaging parents who are interested in their children’s education and want further information. So you get to some through there. You could also get to some through our websites and our networks down through the—

CHAIR —So through the parent bodies?

Mr Dalton —Through the parent bodies. I would think that you would need to use a combination of them to get as full a spread as possible.

Mr ZAPPIA —Going back to a question similar to that asked by Senator Barnett, are there any parent bodies or any independent school sectors that you are aware of that have probably handled this issue better than others?

Mr Dalton —Not on a sector basis; I would say more at school level. There are some schools who are doing it very well and others who are not, but I am not aware of any particular sectors that are doing better other than the Queensland example that I gave in generic terms. In terms of actually doing stuff that engages parents in particular school communities, my perception is that that is more driven by the school at this point in time.

Mr ZAPPIA —My last question is along the same lines. Can you comment or do you have a view as to whether the non-government schools are handling cyberbullying and so on better than the government schools or vice-versa—or is it about the same?

Mr Dalton —I have not seen any evidence that would suggest that one sector is doing it better than the other. It is one of the difficulties that we have in a lot of these areas with schools. In a lot of cases the quality of the responses depends on the inherent capabilities of the principal and the school leadership and the people in the school and not on their development, their training and the policies that support them. I think that these are areas where it is really important that we do start to develop better policies, supports and examples of good practice for the schools who struggle in these areas so that they can learn from the ones who are doing it well.

Mr ZAPPIA —Thank you.

CHAIR —Mr Dalton, in your recommendations you also raised the issue—and we have spoken about it today—of the development of resources and involving the parent bodies in the development of resources. When do you meet and what would be the turnaround time should that be the case? I understand, obviously, you have a lot of other things on your agenda. If that were to be the case, is there a subgroup within the parent organisations that would be involved in that? I am just wondering about the logistics of it.

Mr Dalton —I would see that the logical point of entry here would be the Family-School & Community Partnerships Bureau, which is an organisation established by the Australian government three years ago and which is governed by the Australian Parent Council and the Australian Council of State School Organisations. The whole purpose of that organisation is to build the parental engagement agenda and start to provide a focal point and a clearing house, if you like, for responses such as this.

CHAIR —So would that be the place to initiate with a parental survey?

Mr Dalton —That would be, yes. Certainly that would be the place that I would suggest we would position it, so that it could benefit from the networks of APC, ACSSO and other organisations involved in its function. It would be an ideal point of entry, I would reckon.

CHAIR —Finally, this committee will put together a report and that would include some recommendations. You have highlighted three points there. Is there anything else you would like to add to that?

Mr Dalton —No—just the importance of, as things are developed around strengthening the resilience and the responses of families to these issues, that they are done in a way that is done with parents and not to them or for them.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Thank you for your attendance today. Thank you for your submission. The committee may have additional questions and if they do they will be put through the secretariat. If you find there is anything you have left out that you would have liked to add today, that too can go through the secretariat.

Mr Dalton —Thank you. It has been a very good dialogue; thank you for the opportunity.

CHAIR —It is a pleasure.

Resolved (on motion by Senator Barnett):

That this committee authorises publication of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Evidence was then taken in camera—

Committee adjourned at 3.01 pm