Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education.
Today I'm in conversation with Julie Inman-Grant, who's Australia's eSafety Commissioner. She has more than 25 years’ experience working at the intersection of technology, public policy and online safety, including with Microsoft and with Twitter.
And today we're going to be talking about e-safety for students and families, especially in this difficult period. Welcome, Julie.
Thank you for having me, Mark.
I've got two questions to start with. Firstly, what is an eSafety Commissioner, and what does an eSafety Commissioner do?
Well, we are the only regulator of online safety that exists in the world and that's precisely what we do. We have about six regulatory schemes and we are here to help Australians have a safer, more positive experience online.
So we do that in three primary ways. One, through prevention, education and awareness. We want to prevent it from happening in the first place. But then I've got an investigative branch where we run the regulatory schemes.
So we have a youth-based cyberbullying scheme. So if serious cyberbullying, which is described as anything that's seriously harassing, intimidating, humiliating or threatening, is reported to a social media site and it isn't taken down, we were set up as a safety net and we can advocate on behalf of the child and we'll also engage with parents and educators to get that harmful content taken down.
The more expeditiously that is taken down, the better, the less mental harm and distress that causes.
We also run a scheme around image-based abuse, colloquially known as revenge porn. One of the first things I decided to do as eSafety Commissioner was change the lexicon, revenge for what?
I think it leads to victim blaming and it's a vile invasion of privacy. So what we do is we get intimate images and videos that have been shared without consent off more than 150 websites around the internet.
We have a 90% success rate in doing so. We have a cyber report team that deals with child sexual abuse material and terrorist content, and then some new powers under the abhorrent violent material laws that were passed in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, that allows us to notify websites and companies if there is any kidnapping, torture, murder or incitement to terrorism online.
And then the last thing we do is what we call proactive change. So we can play it, we can try and prevent, we can try and play a game of whack-a-mole in terms of the take down of content. But ultimately we want to minimise the threat surface.
So one of our major initiatives is called safety by design. And what we're trying to do is shift the responsibility for safety back onto the platforms. Just like the Congress did and the Parliament did by mandating the use of seat belts in cars. So that they're building in virtual restraints to protect users from harms, rather than retrofitting after the damage has been done.
We're in an era where more students are online possibly for a longer period of time than ever before. I want to talk with you a bit about advice to parents and advice to families around managing this complexity that COVID-19 has driven us to, but you've got school-aged children. How is learning from home in your household?
I think co-working and co-learning is incredibly challenging, and the way that we've dealt with it in my household is we've got a roster. In fact, I've got eight year-old twins and they were just remarking that they were excited to be going back to school because they liked the structure and discipline.
They knew when they were going to get lessons, they knew when they had free play, they knew when they had exercise, and it helps my husband and I who are also working from home sort of roster our times in when we're teaching them lessons or helping them with homework.
But even before COVID-19 happened, 95% of Australian parents told us that they found online safety the most challenging parenting issue that they had to deal with and, of course, our parents didn't have to deal with this extra layer of complexity. So now you put us all in the same place to co-work and co-learn, unless there is a lot of structure and guidance, it can lead to some real challenges.
So let's talk a little bit about the challenges that families are dealing with at the moment. If you find yourself with your family isolating at home, and as a lot of student learning shifts to learning at home, at least temporarily, and a focus of that online, what are the key issues that parents need to be looking out for now?
Well, I'd say parents need to be alert without being alarmed. Obviously the more time kids are spending online, not only with schoolwork but socialising and through entertainment, we want to make sure that there's a healthy balance so that they are eating dinner and meals with families, that they are getting out and exercising, that they're playing other kinds of games that aren't electronic and they're having a healthy amount of screen time, if that's possible.
I think the other challenges before COVID-19 happened, we know more than one in four teenagers had been contacted by a stranger or someone they don't know online. And one of the things that our investigators do is we monitor the chatter on paedophile dark web forums and it's like bees to honey. There are literally hundreds of millions of kids sitting at home, spending a lot of time online, often unsupervised, and so they see this as an opportunity to target vulnerable kids and engage in contact with them. Again, there are many things that we can do as parents to help manage that.
So let's talk specifically about that. I think parents will understand that there are dark forces loose and our children can be vulnerable to that, but schools and education systems are encouraging students to spend more time online. That's more comfort for students in life and in the online world. So what's a parent to do in light of these challenges?
Well, I think most parents have a higher degree of comfort when they're doing educational experiences online. But what we're trying to do in our own household is we're setting strict timeline limitations about how they can use technology for pleasure. And so we lay those down and we stick with them.
We also make sure that they're using technology in open areas of the house, rather than behind closed doors. Most of the, what we call coerced child sexual abuse material that we see, that we try and take down off the web, are happening in teens and tweens bedrooms or in bathrooms. So just bring them out in the open.
I also think it's a great opportunity for parents to be more engaged in their kids' online lives. Co-view, co-play, see what they're doing, download new apps with them, help them set up the privacy settings, maybe use parental controls so when you can't be there, you can at least monitor and see how much time they're spending online. So you can use those technology tools, you just can't set and forget totally.
But when we're sitting down at the dinner table, we're not asking them what happened at school or what happened in sport. So I'm asking them about what's happening online, how is everyone doing? Looking out for signs that your child may be being cyberbullied. People's tolerance, whether you're a child or you're an adult, we're not interacting physically, and sometimes words can be misread or they can be used as digital weapons, if you will.
So we've seen a 40% increase in online harms overall with COVID-19, including a 21% increase in youth-based cyberbullying. So we're seeing some pretty sad things like fake memorials to a child that has supposedly died from coronavirus, and of course they haven't. You can imagine how shocking and upsetting that would be to a young person, but also the kind of taunts or nasty comments that we're seeing have a distinctive COVID flavour as well, "I hope you catch coronavirus and die". So again, there's a lot of fear and uncertainty and sometimes humans can exploit that.
So let's talk a little bit about parents and parents’ engagement in conversations around this. You were saying that a lot of the harm can happen when kids take devices and retreat, but there is also this debate, I mean I remember talking to groups of parents, particularly groups of fathers, who felt almost intimidated by their children's use of devices, that in a sense it's my phone. What I do with it in my time is my decision-making, as a teenager. How do you open up that conversation about using devices in public spaces, shared spaces and more of an open dialogue, rather than something that's private and belongs to each child?
Well, I think there is a lot to unpack there, or unravel rather. And the best guidance we can give knowing that 81% of Australian parents tell us they've given their children access to a digital device by the time they're in preschool, is the minute you hand over that device, you are framing it as a privilege rather than a right.
You're talking about, obviously in an age appropriate way, and we've got some great materials for under-fives, for parents of under-fives. So at that age we're having the parents talk to their kids about being safe, being kind, asking for help and making good choices. We just actually partnered with ABC and Play School and had the first Play School episode that had an online element or component to it yesterday.
So that was exciting. But it's having these open conversations and setting those parameters early. It's much harder if your kid has been online, you haven't set down limitations and they're naturally trying to separate or establish independence as a teenager, or if they've started habits, for instance, if they're usually online in their room, it is hard to ratchet that back.
But what's really important is that you let your children know that if anything goes wrong, they can come to you and you'll help them work through it, you won't penalise them, you won't engage in device denial, because we know that about 50% of young people will not talk to a trusted adult in the event of some online malfeasance or altercation.
Because of a fear that they'd lose the phone, that sanctions would be applied?
Yep. And that's like losing their left arm. I think you sort of alluded to the dichotomy that also exists between the technological mastery that kids have now with computers and even phones. And so parents do really feel intimidated to talk to their kids about what they're doing online.
But we have to remember that we've got the judgement, the maturity and the life experience that kids don't have, and this is the type of guidance they need when things go wrong online. Because it's fundamentally about human conflict, it's just playing out in a digital space.
So just thinking it through as far as different age groups are concerned, I hear you saying that when your younger children are first being exposed to devices, you need to set ground rules there about how, in a sense, it's your device, not theirs, and in our house this is how it's going to work. So start early.
If in fact you missed that opportunity, because all of this technology came on us all pretty quickly, and parents were learning about it at the same time as children were learning about it. It's being able to have conversations with your teenagers about the kinds of issues that they may encounter online. So there's been a lot of media coverage of sexting as an issue, and many teenagers will have encountered that or experienced that in one way or another.
Are you saying that that's the kind of conversation that parents should indicate an awareness of with their children to make it easier for children to raise issues if that emerges with them?
Yes, absolutely. And these are tricky and awkward conversations at the best of times. One of the things we have up on our website esafety.gov.au is a parent guide but we also have materials for young kids, for young adults, because again, the conversation's going to be different. So we've got sort of conversation starters for parents who want to talk to their kids about exposure to pornography, which is much more extreme and violent than the Penthouse in your dad's sock drawer.
How do you talk to your kids at the age of eight? How do you talk to a tween and how do you talk to a teen? Because they're different conversations. And with sexting it's really tricky because you want to listen and you want to be there for them, you want them to make good decisions, but you don't want to be judgemental.
And you also don't want to be wagging that finger and say, "Don't do that," because this is actually becoming much more normalised activity amongst young people. And in fact, the area where we've seen the biggest spike in reports is in the area of image based abuse or sexting gone wrong. We've seen an overall increase of about 86%, and then over the Easter weekend there was a major sextortion scam that was doing the rounds and we had about a 579% increase.
But it's happening because young people are going to be separated from the teenage love of their lives. They're going to be curious, they're going be seeking out this information. They may be seeking intimacy in different ways and that may be through sharing of intimate images. So we do need to talk to kids about what the risks are, that anything that they share online, even if they're in love now and they really trust their partner, they have to be comfortable that that's going to be content that could be seen by anyone and be out there forever.
It's just that kids don't have that cognitive ability to really think ahead and think, "Oh that could impact my ability to get a job, to get into uni. It may be following me for the next 20 or 30 years." It's really hard to get your head around that.
So you recommend to parents if they can, to negotiate a settlement or to set ground rules that would not have devices in the bedroom?
If at all possible. I know a lot of parents have sort of set up PCs or Macs in their kids' bedrooms for education. I think back to the time when we were teenagers, our parents knew then that nothing good happened behind closed doors. So we kept them open, particularly when you had guests in there.
I've heard it said as well that you pay for the wifi and even though a lot of devices now have 4G access and the like too, to have certain hours when the wifi is on and operational, but at night the wifi goes down, and also devices are charged on the kitchen bench and that's what we do.
We do that in our bedroom, because the kitchen bench, the kids can go down. So you see that different strategies are going to work for different families. One of the things that we have up is a family technology agreement that again we developed with Play School, because we know that when children are actually involved in the decision-making and the laying down of parameters, they're more likely to follow them.
But you can do the same thing for kids at an older age or an older cohort, and there are different issues you're going to be talking to your teens and tweens about. They are going to want their own independence and they are going to probably be going to school and back, and you won't be able to monitor their phone 24/7. I have conversations with my kids about like, "Oh, you know that you don't need to have 2,000 friends on Instagram. That's not a measure of your popularity or your worth or your self-esteem".
Social media, particularly for a young person, is still supposed to be about engaging with your immediate community, not being an influencer with millions of followers. But there's a lot of the peer pressure that they're experiencing today to conform or live up to that curated rock star version of oneself, even the impact that this has on body image and self-esteem, it's really tricky to navigate.
Let's talk about teachers, because we've had this extraordinary transformation that's taken place with our pivot to learning from home and all of our teachers have just engaged so significantly and there's been a massive professional development program that's been in place to equip teachers to be able to lead a learning experience for students from a distance, through remote learning.
Incredible work and great content has been developed by teachers. But what should teachers be keeping in mind from a safety perspective? We've talked about parents, what do teachers need to get their head around as we deal with this era?
Well again, this is all new territory and when I saw you last at The Sydney Morning Herald event, we had just launched an online tool kit for schools before any of COVID-19 happened, because this is a brave new world that parents and educators are navigating.
So a lot of this covered things like do schools and departments of education have the right policies and processes in place? Do they know how to deal with incidents when they go wrong? When do they report to eSafety office? When do they report to the police? When do they bring in parents?
Then there's some overall guidance that we tell teachers to make sure that they're using school authorised accounts or platforms when they're corresponding with students and parents, and maintaining professional boundaries on social media, that's really tricky as well. But it really has to be done.
We've also seen over the past year a huge increase in both parents and students bullying or creating very damaging memes or targeted abuse against teachers or principals. So we're kind of seeing some reverse abuse happening there, but there's this whole duty of care and this processes for disclosure that need to be understood. And then we're dealing with a whole new set of online platforms to deliver online and remote education.
Everything from Microsoft Teams to Zoom to Google Hangouts. Facebook has just announced that they're launching Messenger Rooms, and they all have varying degrees of privacy, security and safety settings built in. Just earlier this week in Queensland, there was some Zoom bombing during a lesson where some children were exposed to graphic pornography. And so one of the parts of our education section that we've built out is a really broad set of information about how you set privacy, security and safety settings on all of these various platforms, how you manage your lessons to the best of your ability so you can continue delivering that education without being concerned about something going drastically wrong.
Just a few other questions I wanted to cover given your background in the tech industry in particular, and again, reflecting on your current job and your role as a parent too. I sometimes reflect that a decade ago we thought there could have been a hypothesis that the technology will take over, it's so powerful, so effective, learning from screens, great advantages.
Now I think the debate for many people who've been deeply involved in the tech industry is about time away from screens. The limits to what a screen experience can do. And really one of the skills we need to be teaching young people is how to turn it off and how to deal with that level of addiction that technology is in a sense designed to trigger. How are you thinking through personally and how do you think through with your family and the way you bring up your children, about time off the grid, time to turn off the phone, time to not be constantly responding to the incessant demands of technology?
I think self-regulation is really challenging, particularly for young people, and it's hard for us that are working and when there are expectations that we are going to be on and available 24/7, and I think in some ways what we're experiencing now through COVID-19 will make flexible, remote work more acceptable and more routinised.
But I think it's also showing us that human interaction, face-to-face interaction, is still a really critical element of our working, personal learning and professional lives. So one of the most important things I think we can do is model good behaviour for our children. I mean you can't really tell your child to be getting off their phone if you're scrolling through your Twitter feed at the dinner table. So we do need to be setting down the phone and trying to modulate our own usage.
Again, I think structure is probably good, particularly when we are going free range at home with technology, and that may be one of our only outlets. As you say, technology algorithms are designed to keep people on screens as long as possible, and they also create filter bubbles so that we're not really expanding our perspectives. We're being bombarded with news, some of it fake, some of it real, but a lot of it negative.
So when I think about media consumption, I think we need to think about it broadly where our children are concerned. I tend to turn off the news when my kids are in the room, because it is overwhelmingly negative, and we don't know how that will affect them mentally and emotionally. They need to have a situational awareness of what's happening.
One of the things that we talk a lot about is that the four Rs for the digital age, I guess back in our day it was reading, writing and arithmetic. But today it's about respect, responsibility, building digital resilience in our kids because it's not a matter of if something is going to go wrong, it's when, but it's honing those critical reasoning skills. And this is what I think is really important, because what we're seeing is a raft of social engineering, not only scams, but questioning fake news, questioning whether the news source is legitimate, questioning whether your friend might've set up an imposter account or is that so-called friend really saying those things about you?
Even when it comes to viewing this extreme pornography, which kids have pretty ready access to, when you see something violent or graphic, having children understand that these are two actors, this is not what a respectful relationship looks like. So these are really important skills that I don't know are being consistently taught.
And finally, you've worked with big tech companies and we know that our information is so valuable to those companies and that old line, if you're not paying for it then you're the product. You're the one who in fact is being sold. And a lot of what we are selling when we're online is our time, our attention, our location, our information.
And so we give a lot of information to Facebook and Google and others. In the light of all that, we've had the app just launched, which is all about giving our information in a sense over to government to try and keep us safe around COVID-19. What are your thoughts on the app and what are your thoughts on the privacy and safeguard provisions that underpin the app and how should we be training kids about the app?
Well, I think you helped me just frame my answer in some ways, because this is all about a series of trade-offs, and we give far more away, whether we know it or not, to US-based corporations by using "free services" like Google and Facebook, and a lot more detailed information about us.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about and talking to the folks developing not only the COVIDSafe app, but those putting together the safety, security and privacy protections and I have a great degree of confidence that they're taking minimal information. Your name, your phone number, and you can use a pseudonym, your postcode and your age range. So this is a trade-off and very strong criminal penalties, this is only for health officials at state and territory level, there isn't any mission creep, it's not for law enforcement, it's not for surveillance purposes, it can't be misused in any way.
We need this to really get ahead of this, and I think we'll have more fundamental liberties at a physical level in terms of unlocking social isolation while keeping more people safe. So I think it's kind of a furphy that people are comparing the two as a huge privacy violation or surveillance. We can continue to be tethered to our homes if that's what people choose to do, but I think we need to be pragmatic about it and really get ahead of the issues.
Thanks so much for your time and your insights today, Julie, and thanks for the work you're doing to try and educate us all on e-safety. At any time it's an important issue, but in this time, particularly, an important issue as so many of our schools and families and students are embraced with the challenge of learning from home. Thanks for your time today on the Every Student podcast.
And thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast.
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