Labor's backflip on cyber safety a net gain for kids
"Young people are very much plugged into their interactive technologies; they are part of their day-to-day living experiences." Photo: Matthew Burns
On Wednesday, Life Education Australia, in conjunction with the online security company McAfee, introduced a cyber safety program into its primary school curriculum. Schoolchildren who already may be familiar with Life Education's mascot, Harold the giraffe, will now work closely with him online in this program, to be rolled out in 3200 schools across Australia.
In somewhat of a turnaround for the Labor Party, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, launched the program in north-western Sydney. Until recently, her party wanted to censor the internet, much like China does. This is a welcome change in position and signifies the importance of teaching young people how to interact safely and ethically online. Ms Gillard is one of a few national leaders who has taken such a hands-on approach to online interaction involving children.
In the US, the President, Barack Obama, issued the Cyberspace Policy Review in 2009; a further sign that governments need to help set standards for young internet users.
Cyber safety is an increasingly important issue in our schools and homes. Since the introduction of networked computers in Australia in the early 1990s, there has been a rapid rise in computer use. In 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, household access to the internet where there were children 15 years old or younger was 93 per cent.
Figures on smartphones and tablets are a little more difficult to get but these numbers are rising and children are getting smartphones and tablets at an earlier age.
Schools are also increasingly turning to networked technologies to support learning. Many schools have computer rooms, or have issued students with their own laptops. Tablets are now the latest trend, connected to schools via Wi-Fi networks. Some schools are also encouraging students to bring their own devices. While there have been some excellent resources produced, such as those on the government's Cybersmart website, cyber safety has not featured prominently in schools until now.
There are several areas where young people can get into trouble online. Accessing content that is inappropriate and illegal is the most pressing danger.
There is also the issue of cyberbullying or cyberstalking. What happens with personal information provided online is also a concern. These issues highlight the fact that young people are provided with sophisticated technologies that they do not always know how to use appropriately.
Cyberbullying is an issue that receives much press coverage. While this is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, the chances of young people being bullied online are much less likely than their face-to-face risks. The types of networks young people have offline closely resemble those online.
This link between online and offline networks has positives and negatives. One of the positives is that the chance of contact from a stranger is reduced. The person stands out and gets noticed by the group. One of the negatives is that if there is a problem offline, this can migrate to the online world. As in the real world, the best way for young people to deal with bullies is to cut off contact with the offending person. This can sometimes be difficult if the bully is part of ''the group'' and someone the child sees regularly in a face-to-face setting.
Young people are very much plugged into their interactive technologies; they are part of their day-to-day living experiences. The benefits of these technologies outweigh the potential dangers, which is sometimes lost in the discussion. Young people can now keep in contact easily with their parents and other relatives, thanks to technology. If a young person has grandparents who live interstate or overseas, it is now easy to keep in contact via a video-conferencing tool such as Skype. Information and records can be easily accessible on smartphones and the number of educational apps is growing rapidly.
The role parents play in ensuring their children are safe online is as important as it is in the ''real world''. Parents need to have the technical capabilities to ensure they understand and take responsibility for what their children are doing on their computers. Know what your children are doing online is the best advice. Of course, young people should be given a voice in this debate; their experiences should help to shape policies and programs.
Given young people's use of networked technologies, helping them interact safely is now an important aspect of the school curriculum. Having the support of the Prime Minster will help to keep a focus on this.
Damian Maher is a lecturer in primary education at University of Technology, Sydney.