Studies show that nearly four out of five Australian children aged 5 to 14 use the internet, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, recent surveys have found that screen time has increased by more than 500%.
While increasing digitisation of education has meant greater accessibility to information and resources for students and staff, it has also created an environment that gives cybercriminals even more opportunities to target schools.
Today, February 7, marks Safer Internet Day, a global event that brings together communities, families, schools and organisations from more than 200 countries to help create safer online spaces.
Connect, Reflect, Protect
This year’s theme, ‘Connect, Reflect, Protect’, urges students to keep apps and devices secure and using social media in positive ways; consider how what we do and say online may affect others; and tell family, friends or colleagues about eSafety and how the organisation can help.
Indeed, as Term 1 gets underway, many schools will be evaluating their cybersecurity approach to ensure their school communities are educated about cyber risks, and that their systems are protected against current and emerging threats.
One expert who has been working closely with schools is Professor Susan Edwards from the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education. Professor Edwards is a researcher, author, expert in digital play and cyber safety education, and director of ACU’s Early Childhood Futures program.
She is the also the lead advisor on the Federal Government’s eSafety Early Years program, an advisor for Playing IT safe, and recently collaborated with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on the creation of the online safety children’s book, ‘Jack Changes the Game’, written by author Tess Rowley.
Professor Edwards said when children first started using the internet, the main risks they faced were what are known as conduct, contact and content risks.
“Conduct risks refer to how children behave online and includes experiencing or participating in cyber-bullying,” Professor Edwards told The Educator.
“These can also include the posts or responses children make to social media and engaging with pop-ups that download malware or viruses to children’s devices or direct children to inappropriate websites.”
Professor Edwards said contact risks are about exposure to people children do not know as ‘in-person’ friends or family.
“Exposure to people children do not know places them at risk of online grooming for their sexual abuse,” she said.
“This can occur in online games that children like to play where they are able to use chat functions to talk with other people playing the game. Content risks occur when children are exposed to inappropriate content, such violent, gendered or sexualised material.”
More recently, the notion of “contract risks” has also been identified, Professor Edwards said.
Contract risks occur when children accept terms and conditions on apps and games and engage with online content that collects their data without permission, including ongoing privacy risks.
“A variety of newer risks are being identified as children have become increasingly active online,” she said.
“In 2023, some of these risks include exposure to ideological persuasion following social media influencers and engagement with misinformation via social media – especially about health and wellbeing, or mainstream social concerns,” Professor Edwards said.
“Others include creating and sharing self-generated child abuse material, the sextortion of young people for financial gain, and developing gambling predispositions through online gaming. There is also evidence that children using the internet risk being exposed to the glorification of self-harm or extreme body image behaviours.”
Professional development pointers for staff
Professor Edwards said it is important for educators to understand that children’s online safety varies according to their ages and uses of the internet.
“Very young children, in the preschool years are active online, playing online games, communicating with friends and family and consuming digital content,” she said.
“Older primary school aged children may participate in multi-player online games, and exchange information with friends using chat functions and social media. Secondary school aged children may be highly active across a range of social media platforms, online games, and involved in making online purchases.”
Professor Edwards said teachers and leaders can brush up on understanding how the cohort of children they teach use the internet in their daily lives.
“This will help teachers and leaders understand the most likely risks faced by the children they teach. For example, for young children consuming content on video sharing platforms may place them at risk of viewing gendered or culturally inappropriate material,” she said.
“For primary school aged children, participating in online games may place them at risks of engaging with people they do not know in-person.”
As for secondary school aged children, Professor Edwards said social media usage can result in ideological persuasion or even self-harm glorification.
“Directing attention and strategies to key risks faced by children in different age groups can maximise time spent on targeted online safety education rather than providing children of different ages with the same generalised messaging.”