Rosalie O’Neale is a senior advisor with the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s Cybersmart Outreach division. She reveals the latest statistics on children’s online behaviour, discusses the potential pitfalls of internet usage, and offers safety tips for parents and schools.  

What is the extent of technology use in primary-aged children?

Primary-age children are connected, mobile and social. We see the evidence of this every day with our own eyes – children appear to be going online younger and younger, with the rapid uptake (and almost hypnotic appeal) of tablets and other touch screen devices. But anecdotal evidence is also supported by research findings. In 2013 we released Like, post, share: Young Australian’s experience of social media, and some of the highlights included:

  • The vast majority (95 per cent) of eight to 11 year olds had accessed the internet ‘in the last four weeks’, with almost all having accessed the internet at some point in their lives.
  • Children in this age group use multiple internet-enabled devices; up to three for a 10 to 11 year old. And these are all sorts of devices, not just computers and laptops but also handheld mobile devices such as iPads and iPods and game consoles (Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portables, PlayStations).
  • Thirty-seven per cent of eight to nine year olds and 51 per cent of 10 to 11 year olds have – at some time – accessed the internet via a handheld mobile device.
  • Mobile phone ‘ownership’ increases significantly with age. We found that 11 per cent of eight to nine year olds have their own mobile phone, increasing to 67 per cent of 12 to 13 year olds. (According to 2012 ABS data, 29 per cent of children aged five to 14 years of age have a mobile phone.)
  • While the majority in this age group accesses the internet at home, increasing numbers are using technology at school and at a friends’ house, away from direct parental supervision.

What do primary-aged children do online?

Even at this young age children are avid social media users. Forty-five per cent of eight to 11 year olds use social networking sites. For the eight to 11 year olds we found that the top four sites were YouTube, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and Facebook, with the most popular activities being playing games, private messaging, posting comments and posting their own status updates. In other words, they ‘like’, they post, they share just the same as their older counterparts. And they value it, very much. In fact, the proportion of eight to nine year olds who rated the internet as ‘very important’ had doubled since 2009.

What are the main issues arising from high internet usage? 

So 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, 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.

What do parents need to be aware of? 

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.

Our advice to parents is: 

  • talk to your child about staying safe as soon as they start becoming active in the online world, and keep the discussion open as they grow up to make the dialogue part of everyday parenting life
  • monitor children’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
  • find out what children 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
  • model the kind of positive online behaviour you would like them to use. 

You can find more information at www.cybersmart.gov.au/parents.

What do schools need to be aware of?

Schools play a vitally important role in guiding children to be safe online. We know that they are actively confronting issues around cyberbullying, for example, even with young children. Safe schools put in place policies around online safety issues, which set out the processes to follow should incidents occur. These policies should address the needs of all concerned in the particular incident, and include a range of methods of resolution.

Schools need to be alert to: 

  • changes in personality and behaviour
  • unexpected changes in friendship groups
  • less interaction with students at school, including peer rejection
  • decline in school work and higher levels of absenteeism
  • excessive sleepiness or lack of focus
  • increased negative self-perception
  • a decline in physical health
  • self-harming thoughts (which should be reported to the administration and the parents/carers immediately for appropriate action).

It is very important that staff are kept up-to-date with the way students are using technology, and the risks and challenges that this may pose. Cybersmart Outreach offers Professional Development workshops for teachers which aim to equip schools with knowledge, skills and resources to minimise and address risk within the school environment.

It’s also very important to involve parents and students. For this reason we also run internet safety awareness sessions in schools and have a number of fun activities we run with students to help reinforce important lessons about socialising safely and positively online. We strongly recommend that schools keep parents involved in the education process through running information sessions or special events and by including online safety items in newsletters (amongst other things).

You can find out more at www.cybersmart.gov.au/schools.

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 information on professional support provided by Cybersmart Outreach, go to www.cybersmart.gov.au/Outreach.

See Rosalie at the Child Online Safety & Protection Conference in Sydney, 3-4 March: 

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