It will take an all-round drive to deal with the cyber bullies | OPINION

PROTECTING children from cyber bullying must begin at home and in the classroom.

The issue goes to the zeitgeist of our age — a collision between educating children to be responsible, the intervention of the state and the dramatic reach of technology.

The new federal director of cyber safety this week began sifting through submissions to the government’s cyber discussion paper.

Cyber bullying is an age-old problem in a modern guise. With children growing up faster, we have to teach them about choice and responsibility earlier.

An e-safety commissioner’s edicts will always be less effective than promoting positive digital citizenship — a concomitant of good citizenship generally.

Such citizenship is required because internet filtering has failed.

Whatever controls governments set up, technology will defeat.

Consider Snapchat.

An app users can send photos, videos and text as “snaps” with a limited viewing time for recipients — Wikipedia in December set that at one to 10 seconds.

This is designed to register offensive or hurtful material and, after the time limit, all images are hidden and deleted from servers.

During the viewing period, the recipient must maintain contact with the device’s touchscreen.

This hinders the user’s ability to take a screenshot. This is allowed, but the sender is notified if a recipient takes such a shot.

So Snapchat is relatively safe isn’t it? Not really.

Users can bypass the safety catches by taking a picture with another camera or disabling notification through a modification of the Snapchat binary.

These ways around safety barriers mean two things.

Firstly, any e-Safety commissioner must be technologically nimble about cyber bullying.

Such an office tells young people their safety is important and the community takes seriously inappropriate behaviours.

But to be effective, the commissioner shouldn’t be too harsh.

The commissioner’s remit must also cover chat rooms and social networking sites and there must be a range of responses, including mediation, counselling, restorative justice programs, community-based orders and probation.

The framework must also allow direct complaints, including from schools and police.

The danger is the commissioner will always be remote from the victims of such bullying.

Independent Schools Victoria research showed younger students turned to parents and teachers when bullied, while older ones favoured friends.

More recent research, reported in the government’s discussion paper, suggests only a few report bullying to parents, so the young must have ways to complain to the commissioner without recourse to police, their school or their families in the first instance.

A balance must be struck between oversight and action and the development of responsibility and choice.

An e-Safety commissioner must exist parallel to school development of “good digital citizenship”.

Schools and parents have an ongoing role.

Given their closeness to students, they will have more impact in mitigating the damage and hurt than any commissioner.

The second plank in the framework involves schools helping students develop the moral compass to avoid abusive behaviours.

Independent schools’ programs complement the e-Safety commissioner’s role with cross-age mentoring that educates both age groups.

Some schools also present online safety issues in a way that challenges students to think about them from the perspective of their friends and foes.

The independents also have “parent portals” to educate them in cyber language.

Having an e-Safety commissioner is important but ultimately the issue is the responsibility of all of us.

Phillip Heath is chairman of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.

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