Tackling Cyberbullying

I spoke in parliament tonight about the need to reduce cyberbullying.
Reducing Cyberbullying, 24 June 2013

Bullying has long posed a challenge for schools, parents, workplaces and, most significantly, its victims. It also poses a challenge for us legislators, and it is a challenge the Gillard government has sought to address through initiatives such as the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence, through directing more than $20 million to the Fair Work Commission to provide victims of workplace bullying with a quick and effective way to resolve bullying at work and prevent it ever happening again.

But, as online communications become increasingly prevalent in our offices, our schools and our social lives, it is clear that combating bullying needs to adjust to take this new dimension into account. It is especially important we recognise the safety and security needs of young people, who are growing up in a world with greater digital use than any previous generation.

As a parent, I recognise that the use of the internet my three little boys engage in is vastly different from my own. They have never known a world without ubiquitous internet. To them, being able to touch the screen of a device is just what you do. The ease with which my four-year-old comfortably navigates the internet sometimes sends a shiver down my spine.

That is going to present my three little boys with opportunities I cannot pretend to foresee, but it will also bring new threats. Between Facebook, Vine, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat, there is a rapidly developing world of online communication. We have to embrace those technological developments while at the same time doing what we can to safeguard the security of users now and into the future.

Bullying may be an old problem, but cyberbullying is different in a number of important ways. Firstly, it provides a degree of anonymity to the perpetrators, meaning they can behave with more aggression and malice than they may dare to in person. A famous study by researchers at the University of Texas, Austin paired up young university students and just asked them to engage in conversations over email. By the end, the researchers were stunned at the extent to which these otherwise placid young university students had begun to engage in conversations that were either lewd or rude. We know that cyberbullying can occur 24/7. We also know that it is nearly impossible to escape. We know it can reach a far more public arena and that online activity can quickly be shared with a larger audience than was possible with bullying in the past.

The Labor government takes the issue of cyberbullying very seriously. In 2008, this government committed $126 million towards a range of cybersafety programs targeted at informing and educating young people as part of our broader cybersafety plan. The government's cybersafety plan is combatting online risks to children. It is helping parents and educators protect children from inappropriate material and inappropriate contacts while online.

The funding supports measures for cybersafety support, education, awareness-raising initiatives and law enforcement, such as funding for the expansion of the Australian Federal Police Child Protection Operations team to detect and investigate online child sex exploitation, funding to increase the capacity of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to ensure prosecutions are handled efficiently and funding for education and awareness-raising through the Think U Know program, which aims to assist parents and children to deal with the risks posed by online predators.

I particularly acknowledge the Youth Advisory Group, some of whom met last year with Minister Stephen Conroy and me at Amaroo School to discuss their inputs into making sure that these cybersafety advances by the government are appropriate and useful to young people. That Youth Advisory Group helped to develop online tools, such as the Cybersafety Help Button and the Easy Guide to Socialising Online website. The government has also provided funding for the Australian Communications and Media Authority's Cybersmart program, which is a national cybersafety and cybersecurity education program.

All this investment is based on some pretty concerning research. Studies undertaken by the ACMA and partly released on 19 March 2013 have found that 14- to 15-year-olds are the most vulnerable to cyberbullying. Thankfully, they are also the most likely to stand up and speak out about it. The research indicates that more than one in five 14- to 15-year-olds have experienced cyberbullying. It shows that levels of cyberbullying among Australian children remain generally steady, despite increases in online participation. That is a good thing.

That indicates that the cybersafety messages underpinning programs such ACMA's Cybersmart program are getting through to the people they are intended to help. The ACMA's research also indicates that eight to 11-year-olds use more than two devices to access the internet. While computers are still the main point of access, a quarter have gone online using a mobile phone and half have accessed the internet using another kind of mobile device, such as a tablet or gaming device.

Thirty five per cent of eight- to 11-year-olds have their own mobile phone, rising to 94 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds. Recent research by Pew has indicated that young Americans are essentially now plugged in for every moment that they are not sleeping or in school.

Industry and organisations are coming together to address issues of cyberbullying and cybersafety. Organisations like McAfee are engaging in research, education and awareness raising. McAfee's research which Minister Conroy launched on 21 May 2013 was released as part of the 2013 National Cybersecurity Awareness Week which was 20 to 24 May. The research tells us that education needs to start early. On average young people are using many more internet enabled devices. The McAfee research tells us that one in five tweens have chatted to a stranger online and six per cent of teens have met up with a stranger. That is a statistic that would cause great fear for many Australian parents.

Professor Donna Cross of Edith Cowan University has completed a landmark study on cyberbullying commissioned by the government. She reports that children who had been bullied are much more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. Professor Cross said:

‘We know that probably the most significant effects on children who've been bullied are effects in their mental health. They're much more likely to feel depressed, anxious, their self-esteem is affected. There are some students that report suicide ideation. It has very serious immediate effects and long-term effects.’

Twenty thousand Australian school children were surveyed using a combination of anonymous questionnaires and interviews. According to that survey work, about 10 per cent of young people reported they were being cyberbullied. This government has done the research, we have recognised the problem, and we are acting on it. It is terrific to see the coalition now adopting similar policies in the fields of cybersafety and cyberbullying.

To quote Dr Judith Slocombe, the chief executive of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation: ‘there is no difference between someone who bullies online and one who bullies face-to-face. They are just using different methods. They both can cause enormous harm.’

It is important we talk about those issues because online communications are developing rapidly. Rollout of Labor's National Broadband Network - fibre to the home for 93 per cent of Australians and ubiquitous broadband for the whole population - is happening fast. Last Friday I was in Gungahlin with Minister Conroy to see nearly 11,000 new Gungahlin homes switched on to the National Broadband Network. People in Amaroo, Ngunnawal, Palmerston and Mitchell now join the nearly 15,000 Canberrans in and around Gungahlin that are enjoying superfast broadband. By mid-2016, construction in the ACT will have commenced or be complete to 180,300 homes and businesses. Gungahlin is also leading the country with the sheer number of premises that are signing up to the National Broadband Network. In an area switched on only six months ago more than half the population has signed up for an NBN service. In another area that has only been switched on for three months take-up of the National Broadband Network is already 40 per cent. The myth that the opposition peddles that no-one wants the National Broadband Network is being disproved every single day in the ACT and all across Australia.

Australians come up to me in my mobile office, my community forums and when I am doorknocking and they never ask me, 'Why are we getting fibre to the home?' The question they ask me is, 'When do I get fibre to the home?' Australians recognise the importance of fibre to the home and we recognise the importance of a cybersafety plan to make sure Australians are safe online.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.