Digital Footprints

Posted on December 13th, 2011 in AYMN Blog by May Slater

When a group of high-school friends post a rumour about a rival it sparks a chain reaction that leaves no one untouched. Cyberbullying, sexting, filmed fights and police action ensue — will these friends avoid being tagged forever?

This is the blurb for a new video developed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for high school students as part of their Cybersmart Program. Cases of cyber-bulling and ‘sexting’ have appeared all too frequently in the media of late and research from the ACMA and PEW Centre tells us these are now significant issues for secondary students.

Last year, nine in 10 teenagers said that they had witnessed someone being mean or cruel to another person on a social network and over a quarter (26%) of teens surveyed reporting having been harassed by someone through their phone. The same study found that 18 per cent of 14-17 year olds with a mobile phone had received a ‘sext’ from someone they knew and that 47 per cent of teenagers said they regretted some of the messages they’d sent in the last year.

Greg Gebhart, from the ACMA spoke at our Bankstown Forum with VET Network recently about how children and young people are using the internet and how we, as a community who work with young people every day, can help protect them and ourselves online.

“The biggest challenge for us is to teach kids what is quality information. It’s important for them to know what’s real and what’s not real, and that what you do online can come back to haunt you. And I think kids are pretty poor at that at the moment,” he says.

In his role as Senior Cybersafety Trainer with the ACMA, Greg travels Australia speaking to parents, students and schools about protecting themselves and their digital reputations.  He says the three most common issues he sees for young people are:

  1. Sexting;
  2. Filming and distributing videos that show others or onself being hurt, attacked or humiliated in a bid for fame, and;
  3. Bullying and harassment via social networking sites, email, chat rooms and mobile phones.

“Of about 250 high schools I’ve worked in over the last two months, every school identified a sexting issue,” says Greg. “I’ve been doing 7 or 8 radio interviews a week on sexting. It’s high profile, it gets people’s attention in the news and it’s probably one of the hardest things to talk about with young people.”

The ACMA defines sexting as the sending of provocative or sexual photos, images, messages or videos using a mobile phone or posting online. While the latest technologies are exciting and hold all sorts of possibilities for learning, it seems that with increased use of mobile technology and real world, real-time integrated web applications come increaed risks for young people and for their futures. Aside from one’s digital dootprint, other related concerns include the trend of increasingly younger children using mobile phones and social sites, and excessive use of technology leading to social isolation for many young people.

“I think the big concern we have is that, while technology is integrated into their lives, kid’s often lack the emotional intelligence; kids really don’t have the maturity to be using some of the devices and programs that they’re using in the way they should, or in a way that is safe.”

“Those of us working in education, we need to work on digital citizenship. It is imperative that schools and youth workers have policies and programs in place to educate and empower children and families about ‘sexting’ and how to reduce exposure and risks,’ said Greg.

So what are kids really doing online?

“I asked grade 5 and 6 kids in country Victoria recently, what their favourite 3 websites were; This is 10, 11 and 12 year olds. I expected I was going to get Club Penguin, Google and maybe kids on Facebook. The number one site I got was You-tube, next was skype for video conferencing and number three was e-bay. Not sure what they’re doing with parent’s credit cards but they love to go to ebay!”

From a young age, children are using adult programs and are already heavily involved in social networking sites, says Greg. This includes Facebook, but also younger sites like Club Penguin and Yoshi Monsters. With mobile and smart phone technology, we’re able to take and share pictures easily using bluetooth. These can often include inappropriate pictures with friends which go viral.

“What this means is that they have online profiles, they’re in chat rooms, they have ways to share content, to share photos,” says Greg. “While we know the highest risks occur in the older, secondary years, we need to educate primary kids, because they are living in the same kind of world and when they get to high school, they’ve got patterns set so deeply it’s very hard to change them.”

Despite Facebook stating you must be 13 years of age to open an account, for example, Greg says a recent trip to Adelaide confirmed a large proportion of much younger children are regular users.

“We found that 50% of years 5 and 6 were all 13 years of age,” says Greg. 25% of all grades 3 and 4 were all 13 years of age. And a teacher said to me last week, I have 14 of a class of 26 with Facebook and I teach prep and second grade!”

“What you’ve got here is primary school age children, spending huge amounts of time on Facebook; what they’re actually doing is connecting with older brothers and sisters and they watch what happens on their site.  While they might not be cyber bullying, or using bad language, they’re watching and learning, but more importantly, they’re becoming de-sensitized to it.”

“I think in the next few years cyber-bullying might become higher, more extreme and dangerous, because kids are becoming so used to it,” says Greg.

Friends and privacy

“The average number of online friends of year nines in the schools I visit is between 500-700 friends.”

Two years ago, Internet Security firm Sophos conducted a Facebook ID Probe to see how willingly social networkers give out their personal data. Facebook users were invited to befriend ‘Daisy Feletin’ a rubber duck in her 20s. In Australia, more than 46 per cent of people approached by Daisy agreed to be friends with her within two weeks. 41% of those people divulged personal information – such as email address, date of birth and phone numbers – to a complete stranger.

Part of the same study, included 100 students in 12 different countries, who didn’t have their profiles set to private.

“You can imagine teenagers; “how cool, a duck wants to be my friend,” says Greg. “More than half of the kids accepted the request. If Sophos were trying to do identity theft; they’d have gotten all their personal details, nearly all their birthdays, first names and last names, over 50% had their addresses and school address listed – and about a third of brothers, sisters, friends are now vulnerable to identity theft and fraud through their accounts as well.”

“With the secondary kids, they all want to be the most popular kids in school”, says Greg. “If I ask who has between 150 friends; kids hide their hands ‘how embarrassing,’ while the other kids sit up in their chair to look at who the losers are. There are lots of kids with over a thousand friends on Facebook,  their levels of trust are actually getting higher and higher, and they’re putting themselves more at risk.”

How can we help protect young people online?

Reducing that outer circle of unknown ‘friends’ is one way the ACMA encourages young people to protect themselves online. But for Greg, supporting young people to be safe online is also about education in the community and “having the conversations.”

“If young people can be encouraged to talk about where they are sharing their information and the kinds of people they are communicating with, it greatly reduces the likelihood of unwanted online contact and cyberbullying going unnoticed,” he says.

As well as free seminars for professionals working with young people,  the ACMA provides tips and a set of great free resources to help protect young people online. You can access these from the following links:

The Cybersmart program is a national cybersafety education program managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), as part of the Australian Government’s commitment to promoting online safety for children and young people. For more information about Cybersmart, visit

ThinkUKnow is an Internet safety program delivering interactive training to parents, carers and teachers through primary and secondary schools across Australia using a network of accredited trainers. Developed by the Australian Federal Police and Microsoft Australia.