Written by Ashleigh Buck
Trigger warning: Cyberbullying, sexual harassement, sexual assault, child abuse, self-harm, suicide
Living in a pandemic age has supercharged our online lives. With in-person events and catch-ups constantly up in the air, we’re spending more and more time online. While this can be a great way to connect, we have to be aware of the increased risk of online harm and harassment.
Online safety addresses a broad spectrum of issues that may lead to personal harm of citizens. These harms are enabled through online interactive communication, which is where the role of our eSafety Commissioner comes into play to assist in decreasing and preventing cases of cyberbullying and harassment.
Julie Inman Grant is Australia’s eSafety Commissioner. She is a part of the first government agency in the world that is purely dedicated to online safety. They are committed to helping all Australians have safer experiences online by removing harmful content from the internet through a range of prevention, education, and early intervention measures.
With the power to compel online platforms to remove image-based abuse and cyberbullying that targets youth and adults, this organisation will soon have new powers to help adult victims of cyber abuse.
Could you give an overview of what online safety incorporates? What are the key areas people should be aware of?
People of all ages need to know that eSafety is there to help them. We act as a safety net for all Australians. eSafety’s investigative teams have a range of civil powers to compel takedowns of illegal or harmful content, whether that’s child sexual abuse material, pro-terrorist content, serious cyberbullying of a child, and image-based abuse – sometimes wrongly referred to as “revenge porn” – possibly one of the worst invasions of an individual’s privacy we see here at eSafety.
These schemes provide a vital safety net for Australians when their reports for help to the platforms fall through the cracks. Our pending Online Safety Act reforms promise some exciting new schemes around serious adult cyber abuse and the basic online safety expectations we have around the platforms providing interactive online services to Australians.
Our current generation is living in a very online world; do you have any advice or tips on the ways university students can remain safe whilst online?
More than 35% of reports of image-based-abuse made to eSafety relate to young adults in the 18-24 age group; this same age group accounts for over 60% of all enrolments at Australian universities.
We have a Toolkit for universities. Our resources are designed for use by students. These are focused on helping students understand the types of online abuse they could encounter and how to take action to prevent and respond to online safety incidents. The information is useful at uni, at home, in the workplace and while hanging out.
The first two resources are universal. They cover the basics of online safety, and targeted information for supporting women (who are more likely than men to experience online abuse).
The remaining resources are specific to this audience. They include tips for building your confidence while navigating the online world, managing your time online and how to take action if you or someone you know experiences online abuse.
How do you implement safety online?
We approach our work through the “three p’s”: Prevention, Protection and Proactive Change. The first “p” is Prevention. Developing evidence-based resources and programmes to prevent online harms from happening in the first place. We know that meaningful behavioural change can take decades, so our work with Australians is audience-focused but also age and context appropriate, including resources specifically for women, older Australians, and children. The second eSafety “p” is Protection – and protection is what we provide our citizens through our regulatory and reporting schemes. And the final “p” in eSafety’s three p’s is Proactive Change. We believe if we are truly going to make the online world a safer place into the future, we’ve got to minimise how many threats are out there.
To achieve this, the responsibility for online safety cannot continue to fall solely upon the shoulders of users. More responsibility needs to be put back on the technology platforms themselves.
What should/could students be doing better to remain safe online?
Any one of us might have a negative experience, ranging from relatively low impact issues like mild criticism or feedback, to more damaging experiences such as cyberbullying (up to 18 years old), adult cyber abuse (18 years and older), image-based abuse or being scammed.
This is where the eSafety Commissioner can help. eSafety’s role is to help safeguard Australians at risk from online harms and to promote safer, more positive online experiences. This includes providing advice, information, and resources on the eSafety website and helping people who report online abuse.
As most are aware, the future is looking to become even more reliant on the internet. Do you believe this will have positive or negative effects on the future adolescents? Why or why not?
The internet has become an essential utility and there’s no going back! In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged online use and online harms in ways we weren’t entirely prepared for, and in Australia we’ve seen spikes across all our reporting areas.
We cannot forget that the internet provides so many benefits – it keeps us connected, entertained, has enabled us to work, be educated and explore in ways that weren’t possible even 30 years ago. We know there are also a range of risks, from the serious harmful and illegal content we deal with which may include exposure, risky self-harm, pro-ana or suicide sites or may cause young people to have a skewed or unrealistic view about what their everyday life should look like.
I view my job as trying to promote the benefits of the internet whilst minimising the risks. For instance, during 2020 our investigators received 21,000 public reports with the majority involve child sexual abuse material. We also saw a 114% increase in reports of image-based abuse or the non-consensual sharing of intimate images – with 30% of these reports coming from minors.
Are you and your team working on anything that would allow for safer interactions with online medias for not only students but the wider community?
For any budding tech developers out there, we want to make sure that online safety is up front and thought about from the start to stop online harms from occurring in the first place.
Safety risks should be assessed upfront. Protective measures need to be put in at the start of the product design and development process. We call this Safety by Design.
In a world first, eSafety have recently released two interactive assessment tools for both early-stage technology companies (Start-up edition) and one for mid-tier or enterprise companies (Enterprise edition). The tools provide guidance for companies of all sizes and structure to help them along the way in developing safe products, assisting them to embed safety into the culture, ethos and operations of their business.
Building in sound safety practices up front, rather than retrofitting safeguards after any damage has been done – after a “tech wreck” moment – mitigates any further revenue, regulatory or reputational damage down the line.
Are there people, places etc., that students can contact if they are experiencing bullying or feeling unsafe online?
If you are experiencing online abuse the first stop should be to report that to the platform, and then to us at eSafety. Helplines include Headspace, which is for 12- to 25-year-olds. Phone counselling is available all day, every day. Online chat is available 9am to 1am EST daily.
UniSA students also have access to free and confidential counselling, as well as an out-of-hours crisis line. Head to unisa.edu.au/counselling for more info.
To help you stay safe online, we recommend following your university’s complaint and reporting processes for inappropriate behaviour, supplemented by eSafety’s range of recommended safety strategies. Check out the guide on the eSafety Commissioner’s website https://www.esafety.gov.au/key-issues/esafety-guide for more info.
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