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It’s time to give online abuse a red card

06:00am February 08 2022

New research from the eSafety Commission reveals only 4 in 10 parents are aware teens were exposed to harmful online content. (Getty) 

When I arrived in Australia in August 2000, the country was gripped by the magic of Olympics fever. 

I'd always considered myself fairly sporty, but one thing I learned quickly is that competitive sport is a character-defining part of the Australian identity.

From the pinnacle of Olympic competition through to the grassroots community level, sport plays a significant role in Australians’ lives. 

But while our passion for sport often unites us, sadly, it can also spark racist and misogynistic abuse, personal attacks and physical threats. 

And the internet has taken some elements of “sports tribalism” into a new, dark, abusive online domain. Where once fans were limited to venting frustrations from the stands or the couch, now social media allows people to anonymously hurl abuse directly at athletes and fans.

Tackling this scourge was the driving force behind a recent landmark online safety commitment signed by major sporting organisations. 

It also inspired this year’s ‘Play it Fair Online’ theme for today’s Safer Internet Day 2022

But the mission of the day goes well beyond the playing field.

Online abuse is not confined to players or public figures. Sadly, it’s experienced by thousands of everyday Australians.

At eSafety, we are seeing an upsurge in complaints about abusive and harmful online attacks from people across all walks of life.  

Worryingly, we’ve found the rise in cyberbullying is one of the biggest challenges that parents face in helping their children navigate the pitfalls of the digital age, as young people are particularly susceptible to online harms. 

Since eSafety’s inception in 2015, young people have been a priority, recognising that as their lives move seamlessly between the digital and offline worlds, they are exposed to digital threats they may not be able to understand or deal with. 

New eSafety research has also identified significant gaps in parents’ awareness about the types of harms children can experience online. While 6 in 10 teens have been exposed to harmful content on topics such as drug taking, suicide, self-harm and violent sexual material, only 4 in 10 parents were aware of this happening.

Parents have limited awareness about bullying experience: nearly 70 per cent of kids treated in a hurtful or nasty way online said they told their parents, but only 51 per cent of parents were aware of these experiences.

Parents are also underestimating the prevalence of children’s negative online experience, the research showing children are not telling their parents about experiences that are embarrassing, sensitive or concern stigmatising topics such as drug taking, suicide, self-harm and unhealthy eating.

The lesson here is that parents have an important role to play in children’s digital lives and that digital parenting needs to evolve as children grow older to better respond to encounters with harmful content. 

To help families navigate these challenges – and for tips and tools to help children thrive online – eSafety has created a range of resources. These include a new tech agreement aimed at children aged between 5 and 8, which encourages kids to collaborate in class and at home to establish online safety practices and commitments during the year.

Our popular virtual classroom webinar, ‘Be an eSafe kid: Your voice counts’ also explores how middle and upper primary school students can be safe, respectful and kind and use their voice to ask for help when things go wrong.

Alongside this work to help prevent serious online abuse, new laws combating cyber abuse came into effect last month which provide additional protections for all Australians in the fight against online harms.

For the first time anywhere in the world, we have put in place an adult cyber abuse scheme giving people somewhere to turn if an online service provider fails to remove abusive or threatening content.

To avoid limiting freedom of expression, the laws target online invective at a high threshold which need to meet a two-pronged objective test of being ‘intended to cause serious harm’ and ‘menacing, harassing or offensive’ in all circumstances.

If users report material to a platform and it is not removed, they can report directly to eSafety and we will investigate and assess whether to issue a take-down notice which must be complied with within 24 hours. Failure to do so can result in a fine of $555,000 for organisations, or $111,000 for individuals.

The Online Safety Act 2021 also provides eSafety with new powers to expose repeated failures by platforms to deal with image-based abuse, where intimate images of a person are published online without consent.

It gives eSafety the authority to order service providers to remove illegal and restricted content – including child sexual exploitation material and terrorist content – no matter where it is hosted. And it extends cyber-bullying protections for Australian children beyond social media to include gaming platforms, messaging services and other interactive sites where harms occur.

These changes mark significant steps towards providing broader protection for Australians, and making online service providers more accountable for Australians’ digital safety.

But we all have a role to play in maker the internet a safer place. 

I urge everyone to play it safe and fair, on and off the playing field, and kick cyber abuse into touch.  

Westpac supports Safer Internet Day in partnership with the eSafety Commissioner. Westpac’s Security Hub offers more information to help keep you safe and secure online, including how to avoid scams. Customers can also access a Security Wellbeing Check on the mobile banking app for additional protection measures.

Julie Inman Grant was appointed Australia’s eSafety Commissioner in 2017, leading the world’s first government regulatory agency committed to keeping its citizens safer online. She brings to the role extensive experience in the government, non-profit and tech sectors, including 17 years with Microsoft ultimately as Global Director for Safety & Privacy Policy and Outreach; and with Twitter, driving the company’s policy, safety and philanthropy programs across Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. As eSafety Commissioner, Julie also Chair’s the Child Dignity Alliance’s Technical Working Group and is on the board of the WePROTECT Global Alliance.

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