Rosalie O’Neale is a senior advisor with the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s Cybersmart Outreach division, which empowers children to be safe online. She discusses the potential pitfalls of internet usage and offers safety tips for families.  

What are the main issues arising from children’s high internet usage? 

They’re online, they’re connected – and they’re also confronting the challenges that being online can bring. For most kids, the experience of being online is a good one. However, our research shows around one fifth of eight to 13 year olds reported seeing or experiencing something on the internet in the last year that bothered them. Also, we saw a slight rise in the number of children aged eight to nine years reporting that they had been cyberbullied (up from one per cent in 2009 to four per cent in 2012). Around 10 per cent of 10 to 11 year olds and 17 per cent of 12 to 13 year olds also reported that they had been cyberbullied. 

Being active on social networking services also means raising the risk that personal information will be made public. While the majority didn’t post personal information, quite a large proportion of eight to 11 year olds did post details such as their full name, phone number, a photo of themselves, name of their school, full date of birth and home address.

How involved are parents and carers in their children’s digital lives? 

The clear message from our research, and also from speaking with parents right across Australia, is that parents are active in keeping their kids safe online, and are always keen to learn more to help them in this important role. Parents of primary-age children also tend to have good grasp of what their children are doing online – the kinds of activities they’re involved with and the way they’re behaving.

Parents are still the main source of advice and support when children are experiencing problems online. However, we found that fewer younger children than teenagers had proactively discussed cybersafety issues with their parents. This is significant, given the fact that some quite young children are active social media users, and that the research indicates that a proportion of these age groups are experiencing issues like cyberbullying or seeing or experiencing something online that bothered them.

Parents have told us that their main concerns are:

  • access to inappropriate material
  • contact from strangers
  • online predators 
  • cyberbullying.

What are your top tips for parents and carers? 

Our advice to parents is to start the cybersafety discussion early, as soon as their child starts to become active in the online world. And to keep talking, to make the dialogue part of everyday parenting life. Being interested and being able to understand what it is your child is talking about and the importance of the online world to them will mean that they are more likely to come to you if they run into trouble. Building up that level of trust is critical.

Another important element is education. Find out what your children are up to, create your own accounts and play with the services they are using so that you become familiar with the privacy settings and reporting mechanisms. 

Overall, follow these five steps:

  • Talk to your child about staying safe online and keep the discussion open as they grow up.
  • Monitor your child’s time online, particularly younger children.
  • Set house rules – what’s okay to do and what’s not, how much time is ‘online’ time and what kind of personal information is okay to make public.
  • Consider using filters or other technological tools to help limit exposure to potentially harmful or distressing material.
  • Model the kind of positive online behaviour you would like your children to use. 

Despite the numerous pitfalls, are there positive aspects to the development of children’s online culture?

While we talk a great deal about risks and challenges, we shouldn’t lose sight of the enormous positives of the online world and the great benefits it provides. It’s an exciting time to be growing up, with so much potential to create, connect and communicate. Helping kids to stay safe and become good digital citizens is key to making sure they get the best out of the online world that they can.

For more tips for parents, go to www.cybersmart.gov.au/parents.