We must not underestimate the harm online abuse can do to individuals and broader society, says eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, in a Q&A with Wire to mark Safer Internet Day.
Q. What are the biggest threats individuals currently face to their online safety?
Inman Grant: Online threats are always changing, with new technologies and the darker side of human nature converging to make them more complex and often more damaging and harmful.
Overall, however, I would say that the biggest threat we face is that the platforms we use every day to work, learn, communicate, and have fun are not designed with our safety fundamentally in mind.
That’s why I’ve been calling for industry to take a Safety by Design approach from the get-go – rather than retro-fitting guardrails after the damage has been done.
Cars today are equipped with safety features, including seat belts, crumple zones, rear-view cameras, and parking and crash sensors. The aim has been to make cars safer from the moment we set out on every journey.
There are any number of corollaries here with the current state of technology design and regulation, whether we're talking about online gaming, social media or immersive technologies or AI.
It’s time for the technology industry to take a lead from the car industry and start prioritising safety so that every online journey we embark on is also a safe one.
eSafety is not alone in calling for this. It’s what Australian customers, Australian people, want. Our research shows that 82 per cent of Australian adults expect tech companies to take responsibility for their online safety.
Q. Tell us more about how artificial intelligence is changing the threat landscape in the digital world.
Inman Grant: I’m concerned AI-related harms may unleash a new wave of harms on society’s most vulnerable, especially children. There is potential, for example, for generative AI to automate child grooming at scale and in a highly personalised way.
I’m also concerned about the potential for AI-generated sexual abuse material, including material based on real images of children sourced online. We’re already aware of paedophiles scraping children’s images from social media and using generative AI to create child sexual abuse imagery according to their predatory predilections.
The media attention on Generative AI is certainly helping to fuel public conversations about the risks and benefits of this incredibly powerful technology – but there is a much broader range of emerging technologies that requires equal scrutiny.
It’s the convergence of these technological forces that we should be most concerned about.
For example, immersive technologies have the potential to unleash a new wave of harms at scale that are much more visceral and hyper-realistic than the harms of Web 2.0. The combination of haptics, virtual reality headsets, invasive technologies and networked ‘teledildonics’ potentially means we’re on the precipice of witnessing a new wave of exploitation and sexual violence. These technologies combined could be a powerful, insidious vector for tech-based gendered violence, with the potential to cause profound harm and trauma to victim-survivors; a sobering, distressing future that should give the entire industry pause.
We conducted preliminary research with older teens and young adults to understand their needs and expectations of immersive technologies. This research indicated that of the teens and young adults surveyed who use immersive technologies, around 1 in 5 were having experiences that made them feel unsafe.
Further eSafety research in 2022 found that 4 per cent of Australian adults are interacting in the metaverse (and using virtual reality or haptic technologies). The majority of users, 71 per cent, had at least one negative experience in the metaverse, including almost 1 in 10 who had been touched in a way they didn’t like via haptic touch. A further 1 in 16 metaverse users reported that someone had created a sexually explicit avatar or image of them to interact with without their consent.
As technology advances, we need a thorough approach that blends tech progress with user education. This is crucial to maintaining trust in the digital world.
To find out more about how to spot a deepfake, check out Wire’s Scam Spot video.
Q. The theme of this year’s Safer Internet Day is “Connect. Reflect. Protect”. What’s the message behind that?
Inman Grant: Safer Internet Day is the one day every year the world comes together to think about how we can create a better, safer internet. We use the internet in almost every aspect of our lives, so online safety awareness is more important than ever. This year, we’re encouraging all Australians take three simple actions when approaching online safety: Connect. Reflect. Protect.
Connect safely, by keeping your apps and devices secure and reviewing privacy settings regularly.
Reflect on how your actions online may affect yourself or others.
Protect yourself and others by visiting eSafety.gov.au to find out how to stay safe and report online abuse.
Q. What key steps can people take to stay safe online?
This Safer Internet Day, we’re focused on helping parents and carers connect with their kids’ online lives, especially when it comes to gaming.
To coincide with the day, we’ve released research into the experiences of children and young people, and it shows gaming can bring huge benefits, as well as risks.
It found gaming makes young people happy and provides relief from tough times. It connects them to their friends, helps them learn and offers mental health benefits. Over 40 per said gaming benefited their emotional well-being and almost 60 per cent said it improved their social connection.
On the other hand, around 40 per cent of young gamers had negative experiences, which included bullying-type behaviours.
But there’s good news for parents and carers: the research also shows active parental or carer involvement can keep kids safer when they’re playing online games. When parents ask questions, show interest and curiosity, or play the games their kids enjoy, young people are more likely to go to them if something negative happens.
We know the world of online games can be a daunting and unfamiliar place for adults, so we’ve created new gaming resources to help. They’re designed especially for parents and carers, and available at eSafety.gov.au.
Q. Can you talk about the emotional impact of online abuse, and how damaging it is to society?
Inman Grant: Online abuse can cause a lot of emotional harm, such as anxiety, stress, anger, trauma, and even panic attacks. It can hurt a person’s wellbeing, mental health, self-confidence, relationships, and sense of safety.
Research we released on last year’s Safer Internet Day helped us to quantify the impact of negative online experiences on adults: just under one in three said it impacted their emotional and mental wellbeing, and about one in six said it impacted their physical health.
Online abuse can also make individuals withdraw from public conversations or self-censor to protect their privacy and safety.
This can limit free speech and open discussion, exacerbate cultural tensions, and erode digital civility. It can also make society more polarised and hostile.
Too often, the online world emphasises what sets us apart instead of celebrating our shared humanity.
To find out more about Safer Internet Day, visit the eSafety Commissioner website.
Visit Westpac’s Security Hub for key information to help keep your Online Banking safe and secure and tips on how to protect your loved ones.