Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

Online Safety for Children

I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 and related bill. Obviously they deal with the issue of bullying that perhaps has always been endemic in our society, particularly amongst young people. It is obviously something I spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with in my work in schools. I suggest that the bills have captured some of the learning that has been going on in the education sector over the last decade in some of their content. Labor supports these bills and the introduction of an e-safety commissioner to put into place some of the ideas that are already in place in schools within our communities.We have all read the headlines and can all relay the high-profile stories where bullying and its modern iteration cyberbullying have led to tragic results. In the real world, in our schools and communities, the impact of bullying, real or cyber, have no celebrity status—and when I say 'real' I mean of course in real time rather than on the Internet. This is happening every day in schools, in workplaces, in the community and, tragically for some, in the home.

As a teacher and principal I was trained to deal with real-time bullying. As a profession we had to adapt quickly however as cyberbullying emerged. I received training many years ago as a student at university studying teaching, but it is true to say that teachers learn on the job most of the strategies around protecting children and working with children to create preventative and protective behaviours. That was true in my case and for most of the teachers I worked with. We do that collectively and collegiately, supporting one another to come up with creative and sensitive ways of dealing with issues that can result in tragic consequences, as we have seen in recent times.

Like most in the chamber, we have been swept up, so to speak, by the disruption that is digital technologies coming quickly down the line and into our lives. As a mother I had three teenagers using MySpace. Does anyone remember MySpace? It was only eight years ago but it is the dim dark past now as it has been overtaken by other platforms. Like parents across the country, I had to establish acceptable practices in my home around my children's use of the Internet and at the time the dreaded MySpace. I dare say, like parents and teachers across the country, I had times when I was counselling the victim and other times when I was dealing with the bully. I hope in the process I was educating both in protective and preventative behaviours, creating awareness and making sure people understood the hurt and damage that bullying causes.

At the schools I was working in, we too began to have those conversations with students as issues emerged—firstly, from students interacting with social media from their homes and later with the wide use of smartphones whilst at school. We were dealing with new forms of interaction. The rude message was no longer left on the locker or scrawled in an alley on the way to school for all to see but posted and available for the world to see. We were dealing with this on the ground as the technologies emerged. Responsive schools and communities were educating families about the dangers of online use and about monitoring online behaviour, but the pace of change increased incredibly rapidly. In schools, in the space of six months, we went from debating whether to ban mobile phones in classrooms—in response to the concerns students would be distracted by making and taking calls and text messages in class—to managing something so much bigger.

Upon returning after a Christmas break, we found completely new issues for us to deal with. Those lovely new smartphone Christmas presents meant we were now faced with the proliferation of social media being used during school hours. The new protocols we had put in place the year prior were quickly out of date—digital disruption happens at a rapid pace. The best plans were disrupted by emerging technologies in nanoseconds. In the debate back then about mobile phones there were two schools of thought: some people wanted to ban them outright and others wanted to accommodate the new technology and apply standards and protocols to their use. These were intense debates around mobile phones. So you can only imagine the debates increasing in energy as we moved to smartphones.

My personal view was that we could use the school-wide debate about mobile phones as a vehicle for renewed discussion about good manners. As that became a debate about social media and it being used in negative ways, my personal view was that we could use the debate around the use of smartphones and the use of social media platforms for a conversation about bullying. I think it is fair to say that that is what occurred across our nation. It was important that as a country, as schools, as families and as communities we saw it as an opportunity, not just as a challenge.

The new debate emerged of course and change agents in education were publishing useful ways to harness smartphones for learning. Cutting-edge schools were introducing social media into classrooms to stay ahead of that curve and, in doing so, implemented programs to ensure responsible use of the internet. The education sector generally responded with positive plans for educating their communities on the value and the potential of the new platforms, as well as the dangers and what was acceptable behaviour from the keyboard.

Like all change, new challenges and opportunities emerged. The challenges around the 24/7 nature of social media are real, but as a society we have responded and we are here today as a federal government responding. In schools it was certainly a blessing that the laws, referenced by the member for Ryan in her contribution, already existed. It was a blessing that laws regarding the use of telecommunications for bullying and for harassment were already in place. In my experience, they were incredibly useful in working through issues with parents and students, because the knowledge that things were illegal certainly assisted parents and students to come to grips with the severity of those behaviours, and attitudes certainly changed quickly once people realised that what they were doing was illegal and that there were consequences.

But, of course, dealing with this issue is best done in a preventative way, and that is to educate our community in responsible use. Schools were very quick to bring those policies and practices into cultures. We were fortunate in introducing new technologies on a large scale in this country and in a planned way through the digital education program. This meant that schools prepared the ground by involving parents in, generally speaking, multiple contacts with the school—involving parents and students in those contacts in cyberbullying and awareness training programs. We held them for teachers, for parents and for students as part of our implementation programs. I think this added to broader community awareness about the issues that were occurring in cyberspace.

It also provided an opportunity for the whole school and community discussion about acceptable social behaviours. In fact, in many schools, as we heard the member for Bendigo outline, students were involved in designing those awareness campaigns themselves and strategies were embedded into the curriculum as well as into the culture. It brought the issue of bullying to the forefront again in our classrooms and in our communities, and it allowed us to highlight the hurt and damage that ensues when someone is systematically bullied. In many schools restorative justice practices were used and there was a lot of learning happening for teachers around the power of restorative justice practices. Where those hurt are acknowledged; where the victim is heard and empowered; where the bully comes to an understanding of the consequences of their actions for themselves as well as for the person that they have been bullying; and where the bully is called to account and has to make amends. These were important parts of the learning culture that was happening in schools as this digital disruption grew.

Of course, this is an ongoing issue. New platforms emerge and vast numbers of users mean that systems need to be developed to ensure that offensive material is removed as quickly as possible. I welcome the concession this week from Twitter that they had been lax in dealing with trolls—the new term for a cyberbully. This concession is hopefully a sign that the digital company will follow-up with planning and action to correct this. Perhaps this legislation going through could urge them to do that more quickly than they might have previously. Hopefully they will engage meaningfully in an ongoing way with the proposed e-safety commissioner to ensure that we are in a position to respond quickly as new platforms continue to emerge.

Labor are supporting this bill. As the member for Ryan so carefully explained, there has been a long bipartisan commitment dating back to the Labor government and a very careful, consultative process has taken place. In government we endorsed and responded to recommendations that came out of the cybersafety committees, and in opposition today we support the bill that is implementing some of those recommendations.

Labor have consistently called for detailed industry and community consultation on these proposals. We have facilitated community input on the legislation by referring the bill to a Senate committee and we are pleased to see that the amendment around a review process has been put in place.

There is still work to be done outside of this bill as a community going forward. I hope that our media outlets will continue to create awareness in the community, not so much through front-page stories about bullying as a sensational story but more about ensuring that parents are aware. As a community we are aware of the new platforms that are emerging. As a former teacher I can inform the House that our children are much quicker at finding new platforms and can often be involved in whole spaces on the internet before parents, schools and the rest of us are concerned. I think the media has a role to play in ensuring that we are all aware of what is coming and of what our children are involved in.

The establishment of a children's e-safety commissioner is a step in the right direction—assuming that the commissioner is properly resourced and can act in a timely way. Of course, trying to do something across a whole country may reduce the capacity for this to occur quickly, so I would suggest that setting up systems into the future would be a timely thing. Delays, of course, can be very dangerous. We need to ensure that the commissioner's powers are real and, more importantly, that they are reviewed and kept up to date. I welcome the inclusion of a review built into this legislation.

Most speakers this morning have mentioned the damning statistics of one in five children suggesting that they have been cyberbullied between the ages of 10 and 17. We know that it goes significantly unreported, so we need to continue to monitor that figure to ensure that our practices are helping to prevent those behaviours. We need to continue the conversations started at dinner tables, in classrooms and boardrooms across the country about building supportive, pro-social communities. We need to use the challenges our emerging technologies bring to present as opportunities to address social issues that have always existed but are finding new platforms.

Labor believe we must do all we can to tackle bullying in our classrooms, our homes and our workplaces, and we welcome this legislation as a step towards that. I look forward to working with others in the parliament as we continue progress in this area.


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