Who’s responsible for tackling cyber bullying?


The issue of cyber bullying of school children goes to the zeitgeist of our age. It is a collision point between three  competing forces: educating our children to be responsible, autonomous individuals; the intervention of the state; and the seemingly unfathomable reach of technology.

This week the new Commonwealth Director of Cyber Safety Policy and Programs. begins sifting through the many submissions responding to the government’s cyber safety discussion paper. Twenty years ago who would have even imagined such a position would need to exist?

Bullying  represents an age-old problem dressed in the clothes of contemporary technology. It is as ancient as the Athenian classroom.

But children are growing up faster and we must not lament this. Rather it means that we have to teach them about individual choice and responsibility earlier. Power and control by an e-safety commissioner will always be less effective than promoting positive digital citizenship; and digital citizenship is a concomitant of good citizenship generally. This is about the culture within a school and within the home and the community.

Positive digital citizenship is required precisely because internet filtering systems have proved a failure. The reason is simple; whatever control mechanisms governments seek to set up, technology will always find a way around them.

Take the example of Snapchat. This is a photo messaging application popular with students. Using the app, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as ‘‘snaps”. Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their snaps. According to that technological Bible, Wikipedia, as of December 2013, the range is from one to 10 seconds.

This is designed to register any offensive material or hurtful material, transient. After the time limit expires all images are hidden and deleted from Snapchat’s servers. During the viewing period, the recipient must maintain contact with the device’s touchscreen. This hinders the user’s ability to take a screenshot, which is allowed. But the sender is immediately notified by Snapchat if a recipient takes such a shot.

So parents can breathe a sigh of relief. Snapchat is relatively safe isn’t it? Well, not really. It is possible, for example, for users to bypass the safety catches by taking a picture of the phone with another camera. Or by disabling the notification function through a modification of the Snapchat binary.

And there’s more ways to skin the technological safety cat. Just go to Wikipedia, which helpfully informs students that by running the Snapchat application in an ‘‘emulator’’ it will bypass all restrictions.

These ways around technological safety barriers mean two things. Firstly, any Children’s e-Safety Commissioner must be technologically nimble in their response to cyber bullying complaints. The simple act of establishing such an office affirms to young people the importance placed by the community on their safety and the seriousness of inappropriate digital technology behaviours.

But to be effective the commissioner should not be unnecessarily punitive to offenders aged under 18 years. The commissioner’s remit must also cover chat rooms as well as major social networking sites.

And there must be a range of responses or sentencing options for minors, including mediation, counselling, restorative justice programs, community-based orders and probation. This is the approach nominated by the Coalition’s election platform.

The legislative framework around the commissioner must also enable complaints to be made directly by the complainant (or their parent/carer) as well as school principals or police.

The danger is that the commissioner, as well intentioned as they may be, will almost always be remote from the victims of cyber bullying. Research undertaken by Independent Schools Victoria showed students were more likely to seek help from parents or friends when they experienced online bullying. Younger students tended to rank their parents and teachers more highly as someone they would turn to. Older students favoured their friends.

More recent research, reported in the government’s discussion paper, indicated that only a fraction of those children reporting exposure to cyber-bullying chose to tell their parents. Young people must be given ways to pursue complaints to the commissioner without recourse to the police, their school or even their families in the first instance.

The Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) believes a balance must be struck between proposed government oversight and action on cyber bullying and the development of personal responsibility and individual choice as character traits within our schools.

The association supports the establishment of a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. But such a position must exist parallel to school development of what is best described as ‘‘good digital citizenship”. Individual schools – and parents – have an ongoing role here. Ultimately, given their proximity to students, they will probably have a far greater impact in mitigating the damage and hurt of cyber bullying than any commissioner stationed in Canberra.

Which brings us to the second, fundamentally necessary plank in the building of a framework to protect our children; the role of schools themselves. Schools have an absolutely important role to play in helping students develop the internal moral compass necessary for them to identify and avoid abusive behaviours.

AHISA schools have introduced a range of programs that will complement the part played by a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. As well as ‘‘digital citizenship’’ programs, we implement cross-age mentoring where older students teach online safety to younger students – an effective way to educate both age groups while developing responsibility and accountability.

Given the evidence that older students especially will first choose to discuss cyber-bullying with a friend, some schools are also presenting online safety issues in a way that challenges students to think about them from the perspective of a friend of the victim or a friend of the aggressor.

And finally, AHISA schools are providing parents with access to class resources on cyber bullying through school intranet ‘‘parent portals’’ so they speak the student’s language.

Such measures simply underline this salient point; while measures such as the appointment of an e-Safety Commissioner are important in combatting cyber bullying, ultimately the protection of our children is the responsibility of all of us.