Internet is parents' worst nightmare
Today's young people literally have their world at their fingertips. Photo: Rob Homer
WHEN the Liberal member for Bradfield, Paul Fletcher, and his group of Coalition MPs were preparing their discussion paper on ways to improve online safety for children - released by Tony Abbott on Friday - they came upon a Perth school principal who'd had to sort out a Facebook dispute between two six-year-olds.
On a more sinister level, the group heard of the year 9 class at a Townsville school that had gone on a camp - a Facebook page was set up in the name of a student who did not have a Facebook account and material was posted on it about who'd slept with whom.
For children, the internet is the big enlarger. Whether it is information or entertainment, today's young people literally have their world at their fingertips. But there's a dark side, too, and it is alarming many parents - often not nearly as tech-savvy as their offspring - who don't know what to do.
Policing kids' books or even vetting friends is relatively easy compared to trying to keep track of their internet activities. The Fletcher group spoke to one parent with three children who said her household of five had 20 devices that could access the internet.
Parents' concerns mean that the pollies are getting worried, too. Anxiety about internet bullying is part of the wider concerns about protecting children - early in the week the royal commission on child sex abuse was announced.
In trying to come up with policy to guard children from internet risks, including exposure to inappropriate material, being groomed by paedophiles, and falling victim to bullies, the politicians are caught between demands they do something, the technical difficulties of grappling with a cyber amoeba, and the philosophical question of where the responsibility of government begins and ends.
The Fletcher paper deals with the censorship issue upfront: ''Dangerous and harmful material directed at children cannot be excused on the basis of freedom of speech.''
The paper's proposals - open for discussion until March - include a children's e-safety commissioner, to co-ordinate a national response; a regulatory scheme to deal with complaints and get material harmful to a child rapidly taken down; and agreed product standards for smart phones and other devices, indicating their suitability for children. The government has welcomed the paper - on the grounds that it's adopting the government's policies. The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, said the government had established co-operative relationships with social networking sites, to ensure offensive or illegal material was removed as quickly as possible. Facebook said ''safety is a conversation'' that should involve the industry, government, parents, educators and young people; it points out it is involved in various anti-bullying activities.
Within the Coalition, there is some scepticism about how effective the internet policy can be. Cyber challenges were underlined recently when the government had to retreat from its long-proposed internet filter. While political agreement is easier when just children are involved, the other problems remain. But at least the political focus might better concentrate the attention of providers and give parents useful tips and points of contact for protecting their children.