Keeping Kids Safe Online (well, safer, anyway)

Keeping Kids Safe Online (well, safer, anyway)

We’re living in a time that’s in some ways experimental – and young people ARE the experiment! We don’t actually know what it’s going to be like for young people to have grown up with this technology always on tap.

by Paul Freedman


If you suddenly discovered little Jack (or perhaps, not so little any longer) texting, Facebooking or Tweeting little Katey down the road: “Let’s get naked on the computer!” or something even more explicit, you’d probably have a heart attack, right?

But if all you ever saw was a quick “LGNOC” before the screen got whipped away from you … probably, that wouldn’t raise such alarm. Would it?

Nevertheless, that’s what those letters mean! And it’s apparently just one of many worrying acronyms that kids have dreamed-up to code their sexy online messaging to each other.

How widespread is this behaviour? How dangerous? Can it be defused (without heart-attacks) by wise and loving parents?

These were some of the questions we put to Martin Cocker, CEO of Netsafe, the agency now officially responsible for our online safety. When we last asked Netsafe for suggestions (some five years ago), the big thing was: make sure your family computer is in the lounge or family-room (not bedroom), so Mum and Dad can keep an eye on what the kids are doing. But these days, the idea of a family having just one device is ancient history, surely? 

MARTIN: True. Today most families have multiple devices being used to access the internet. And family members will be taking those devices out with them wherever they go – fully-functioning internet devices that can capture video, and then allow them to share content and be connected wherever they are.
In my 11 years with Netsafe I’ve seen huge changes. Some of the things we now take for granted – like Facebook – didn’t exist when I started.

GRAPEVINE: You’ve told me Netsafe is four times bigger than when we last talked. That suggests you’re really busy! So what are you really busy doing?

MARTIN: Well, last year Netsafe was appointed as the ‘Approved Agency’ under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. And that made us officially responsible for something we’d been unofficially responsible for – helping New Zealanders with personal harm issues.

GV: ‘Personal harm’ – that would be predators, paedophiles, scams, phishing …?

MARTIN: We treat scams as ‘financial harm’ issues (and we’ve a role in that as well). But the main ‘personal harm’ category is typically cyber-bullying, online abuse and harassment. And yes, the actions of predators. And the harm that can be caused by online pornography and similar offensive content. Those things fall within our remit to try and resolve. And the Government officially funds us in this role. 

So every New Zealander needs to know that they can contact us and get help.

GV: Is the growth of social media one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in online activity?

MARTIN: Social media is like the glue that connects and brings together all the different technological changes. And there are two key risks we’re seeing when it comes to young people. 

One is unfettered access to content for which they aren’t ready – coming through internet-enabled devices in their pockets. And the other is content they’re creating themselves – sexual content about themselves which they’re sharing online.

And that, too, comes from their having a device in their pockets that can capture images and share them with friends. All this technology is converging on the phone – a fully-functioning ‘smart’ phone that gives them access everywhere and has full record-and-share capability.

GV: What proportion of kids today own or have access to a phone like that?

MARTIN: There’s no way of pinning that down exactly for each age group. But we know that, by secondary school age, most kids have got some ability to access the internet – unmonitored and uncontrolled. With intermediate-aged kids, it’s a smaller percentage – but I’d still say more than half would be able to access the internet privately.

The fact is, there are lots and lots of ways kids can get on the net today – at a friend’s place if there are strict rules at home.

You mentioned that idea of having one computer in the centre of the house. That used to ensure that parents could monitor what young people were doing online – and they could intervene if necessary. 

There are attempts these days to recreate that using technology, so parents can get information on what their kids are accessing. But it’s not the same as the direct monitoring of old, where you could see what they’re seeing.

GV: What negative influence is all this ‘smart’ technology having?

MARTIN: Well, we’ve certainly seen a growth in the number of cyber offenses. We’re seeing serious abuse and harassment online. And the level of this is rising to be close to traditional bullying levels.

GV: What do you mean by ‘traditional’ bullying levels?

MARTIN: Around about 20-30% of people (over many generations) have said that they faced bullying in the past – often at school. What we’re seeing today is the technology-enabled equivalent – cyber bullying – rising to that same level. This isn’t really any surprise. If there’s a rate of bullying in society of 20-30%, then as technology’s influence spreads you’ll get a matching rate in online harassment. 

But there’s a much broader question: what’s the impact of all this on our young people? 

We’re living in a time that’s in some ways experimental – and young people ARE the experiment! We don’t actually know what it’s going to be like for young people to have grown up with this technology always on tap.

They’ve had easy access to content that their parents, people of my generation, could never access until recently.

GV: Your generation? You’re what – 40?

MARTIN: I’m 45. So I’m not what you’d call a ‘digital native’. I’m just before that generation, even though I’ve grown up with computers and so on. But what we have now is children who are accessing content and living their lives in a way that even my generation didn’t. 

What’s the effect of that? Well, we actually don’t fully know! 

Now, that’s not to say that technology is all bad. Technology is making tremendous improvements in lots of areas. And at Netsafe we don’t buy in to the suggestion that we shouldn’t have these things.

GV: You mean, turn ‘em all off?

MARTIN: Exactly. That’s not going to happen. We believe that, by-and-large, technology makes society better. But we also realise that there are both personal challenges (like harassment and bullying) and societal challenges. What’s the impact of porn on young people who are exposed to so much of it? What’s the impact of social media in terms of young people’s mental health? 

We just haven’t got solid answers to that yet.

GV: We recently interviewed best-selling parenting author Steve Biddulph. Two things he said really struck me. #1: He believes that porn is now the “default sex education source for most boys today”. #2: He believes a big problem for girls, especially, is as simple a thing as lack of sleep. Girls are lying awake at all hours checking for the latest ‘vital’ text, tweet or email from their group. 

MARTIN: Pornography as an ‘educator’ …? Well, go back a generation. Think how we guys fumbled our way through early relationships with girls and how we learned about sexuality within our peer groups. Later, as we got older, we might’ve been exposed to pornography, which we viewed through the lens of our own experience. But what we’re seeing with young people today is a flipping of that order. They are seeing pornography first – and then they’re developing sexual relationships.

There hasn’t yet been research on a scale big enough to say definitively that the use of porn is the problem. But if you talk to any frontline practitioners, they’ll describe to you young people’s strange relationships with sexuality and their pornography-warped relationships.
The other thing you mentioned was what we now talk about as ‘FOMO’ … fear-of-missing-out. And you’re absolutely right.

Young girls especially are constantly checking social media for updates because they really don’t want to be the last to know. And they’re checking in at, yes, even 3.00am, because that’s normal for them. Their whole group of friends is doing the same thing.

Their phones give them the ability to ‘know’ all that in real time.

GV: So how can Netsafe help parents cope with situations like this?

MARTIN: Well, I think the first thing to say to parents is: “You’re not alone!” You are raising digital children in a digital age, and these are the particular complications you’re facing (or soon going to face). 

The general advice that parenting experts give, aimed at minimising the risk of harm to your child across a whole range of challenges, applies in the online space as well. If you have a good, open relationship with your child – especially if it’s a trusting one – you’re much more likely to get positive outcomes. If you can have honest conversations with your kids about risks before they face them, they’re more likely to handle them well. If you deliberately build resilience in your children then they’ll be safer when they hit these issues.

GV: I hear stories about girls or women who, having once posted intimate photos of themselves online, then discover (to their horror) those images popping up on websites everywhere. Are we getting any closer to having an answer to problems like this? 

MARTIN: No – we’re not. And if you need a good reason for online safety, it’s this. Young people (and not just young) are creating sexualised images and sharing them with others – and that’s leading to very negative outcomes. It may be naked photos shared amongst a peer group … or, in some extreme cases, it might be online stuff that’s brought them into contact with criminals.

Our counsel on this used to be simply: “Don’t do it! Don’t create that content! Stay away from that risk!” But it just didn’t seem to be resonating. So some online safety agencies changed the tone of the message to advice about how to do it more safely: “If you’re determined to do this, here are some ways to try and keep safe!” But the problem with this approach is that it sort of ‘normalises’ the behaviour – so that wasn’t particularly successful either.

At the moment in New Zealand we’ve turned our attention to the offence. 

If a young person produces a risqué picture of himself or herself and shares it with somebody else – that’s a mistake rather than an offense. But if that other person then posts it onto social media or they circulate it around their friends, that IS an offense. 

So if you’re in possession of an image of somebody else and share that without permission or use it to harm the person, then you are committing an offense under NZ law. That’s covered by a series of laws within the Harmful Digital Communications Act which has just been enacted in the last couple of years – and it’s also covered, at the extreme ends, by the Grooming Act …

GV: Grooming – that’s where someone builds up an online relationship with young people over a period of time with the aim of eventually exploiting them?

MARTIN: Yes. We see a few of these cases, but I wouldn’t want parents to think this is normal or common. It happens to a few kids, and it’s terrible when it does, when it brings them into contact with criminally-offending adults who then manipulate the child. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s still something we as a society need to create a better response to.

GV: We’ve recently seen cases where the police, investigating a serious crime, ask an internet service provider (ISP) or a cell-phone manufacturer to unlock the accused person’s phone memory or internet history, but they seem to strike all sorts of problems. Where’s that up to today?

MARTIN: Well, there’s an ongoing debate about the powers that law enforcement should have – to use the information that new technologies can make available to them.

They often hold information which, if the police could use it, would help them to get a conviction. In New Zealand we still expect a pretty high level of control over police activity insofar as we make them get search warrants and so forth, and I think on the whole we have a pretty good balance between police access and our own privacy. 

GV: Does Netsafe work with the police?

MARTIN: Yes, on a daily basis. We try to resolve low-level offences without the need to use law enforcement. But clearly, issues that come into this office can easily escalate up and become law enforcement matters. And things that people may walk into a police station and report might not qualify for police action but could be something that we can help with. So we exchange cases on a daily basis. 

The police are themselves significant educators, helping people deal with legal matters, and learn how they and their kids can stay safe. Netsafe also works with schools to educate our local communities. And we work with people like Facebook and Google and Twitter – all of whom care greatly about the experience users have online.

  GV: In a recent issue of North & South magazine, Elizabeth Easther wrote that she worries about things her kids will see or do online. And she cites acronyms kids use to describe their online activities. For instance ‘GNOC’ means “get naked on computer” … ‘GYPO’ stands for “get your pants off” … and here’s a mum-and-dad special: ‘P9/11’ is a parent-alert, meaning “parents are coming!” Are parents right to worry about this sort of thing?

MARTIN: Yes, it is worrying. I think young people have always created codes to try and ensure that their parents won’t realise exactly what they’re doing. Back in the day when there was only one central telephone in the house, they’d have used code words – and that same tendency now shows up in what they’re doing online.

If parents suspect that kind of content, they can probably Google the code and get an explanation. And if you see your child suddenly throwing a ‘P9/11’ you might want to investigate why a parent on the scene is such a worry!
GV: I presume you wouldn’t advocate parents accessing the ‘history’ of their kids’ devices to see what they’ve been up to?

MARTIN: Well, in certain circumstances, where parents are really concerned that something serious might be going on, they’re going to have to spy on them to keep them safe. So yes, check that history – but as an absolute last resort.

Developing a good relationship with your kids … ensuring that they feel open about disclosing things to you, that you’re not going to explode if they do that … helping them to develop resilience and manage risk – those things are going to hold them in good stead online as they get older

It’s also a great help to you – as a parent in the digital age – if you understand the digital environment your children operate in. And it will certainly make it easier to have a conversation with them about risks. If they suspect you just don’t understand, they’ll have little respect for any restrictions you lay down or warnings you give them. But if you’re willing to give it a go, you’re more likely to stay in touch with what is happening for them.

One good way to start that conversation (if you’re feeling behind now) is to ask them to explain things to you. What ‘apps’ do they like and why? What games are they playing and what happens in them? Do they talk to other gamers when they’re online? And what are those people like? Ask those kinds of questions and you’ll hopefully get answers that’ll help you drill down to those issues you feel concerned about.

GV: Should parents be worried about this menacing thing we’ve heard rumours about – ‘The Dark Web’?

MARTIN: Only really technically accomplished kids are going to spend any time on the Dark Web. It’s essentially the internet below the level at which we all use it. It’s a ‘members-only’, very secretive collection of sites where you have to be invited in … where you need specific tools to connect to it.
So kids aren’t going to just haphazardly stumble onto it. They’re not going to be surfing Google and suddenly find themselves plunging down some dark hole. That’s not how it works. Yes, it is a world full of serious risks, but kids who want to explore it will need to be invited in by someone who knows it.

Something much more immediate that parents need to watch is the huge number of hours their young people are sitting staring at a screen – no matter what content is on it. Their devices are so capable and so engaging that far too many kids spend far too long glued to them.

Children need to get to spend more time playing in the sun, making friends, running around, socialising. 

However, I don’t want parents to read this interview and think, “Oh, I’ve got to stop my child going online! I must stop him doing these things.” When parents are looking for a disciplining tool, their first reaction is to take away from their kids the thing they really like – to confiscate their smart-phone, or ban them from the X-Box. As a short term punishment that’s probably fine, but as a long-term punishment it’s really disadvantaging them. We’re disconnecting them from education and social opportunities … from the realities of their world really. 

I guess one of the challenging things about online safety is that society has always been taken by surprise by whatever the next big thing is. For sure, there’ll be some new innovation coming that will encourage us to use technology in ways we probably can’t predict.
We’ll just have to deal with it when it arrives …