The internet can be a dangerous place for children — here's how you can make it safer.
Julia was a trusting girl. She trusted her school friend when she suggested that they make a video together after school.
Julia trusted that it was like a game. And Julia trusted that, when asked to wear garish make-up on her face and act seductively for the camera, it was just for laughs.
By next morning, that trust lay shattered. Julia discovered that the video was on the internet. By first bell, most of her classmates had already seen it, alerted by emails the night before from her so-called friend.
There was plenty of laughter, but for Julia, a shy, sensitive 11-year-old girl, there was nothing funny about it at all.
"Julia was devastated," says her mother. "Suddenly, she was the outcast, picked on, laughed at, excluded. Every day was an ordeal. When we approached the girl's parents, we were told that it was all just a bit of fun.
"Perhaps that was the intention, but it didn't work out that way. The victimisation didn't stop. It was too late. Eventually, we had to move our daughter to another school. It was cruel."
Unfortunately, Julia — not her real name — is not alone. She is a victim of internet bullying, a 21st century malady now reaching epidemic proportions across the country.
In fact, says one national survey, as many as one in four of our children suffer internet bullying and harassment, some of them to the point of suicide. Other estimates put the figure as high as one in three.
And despite clichéd impressions, the modern bully is no longer the big kid with a chip on their shoulder and a fist the size of a melon. These days, it's more likely to be the meek and mild kid who is wielding the most potent weapon in their arsenal — humiliation and public ridicule delivered via the nearest internet device.
The abuse can come from anywhere — anonymous comments posted on a Facebook page to emails, photographs or text messages spreading rumour, gossip and outright lies.
Perhaps worst of all, internet bullies are as all pervasive as the internet itself and are able reach inside a child's home, the very place where they once might have been safe and secure.
Yet there are strategies parents can use to help safeguard their children when they are online.
"Parenting in cyber space is just like parenting in the real world," says Dr Barbara Spears, who is the co-author of the Australian government's cyber-safety program and an academic at the University of South Australia.
"You have to ask yourself, 'Would I allow my child to go out alone to walk down dark alleys in the dead of night to consort with complete strangers in places I don't know anything about?' Most parents would say no. But that's what many parents are doing when they allow their children to roam the internet.
Five tips for parents
- 1.Place your family computer in an open and visible place, such as the lounge room, where everyone can see what is going on and which sites are on the screen.
- 2.Educate yourself about the sites your children like to visit and how they work.
- 3.Limit access to the internet, especially late at night. Set boundaries and stick to them.
- 4.Explain the risks of an online identity: revealing too much personal information is dangerous.
- 5.Know where your child is going, what they are doing and who they are hanging out with online, just like you do in the real world.
Read more of this story in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
Your say: How do you protect your kids from the danger lurking online?