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Tuesday, 01 February 2011 11:39

Backpacks bristle putting kids at risk


Parents frazzled from the summer holidays heaved a sigh of relief as the last of the nation's children returned to school today, their backpacks bristling with recently purchased technology. But new research from Telstra indicates that while most Australian schoolchildren aged 10-17 will now have a mobile phone, and more than half a laptop, not all of them have been warned about cyber security issues by their parents, potentially placing them at risk of cyber-bullying or identity theft.

Almost three quarters of Australian parents surveyed said their child will take a mobile phone to school, and more than half will have laptops. But a quarter of parents haven't provided any guidance about who their children should give their mobile number to, and 38 per cent haven't taught their children how to keep their phone secure using a PIN and password.

In addition around a third of parents haven't talked to their children about what to do if they are bullied online. The problem however is significant.

According to Dr Julian Dooley a senior post doctoral research fellow in cyber safety and bullying at Edith Cowan University, a nationwide survey conducted in 2007 found that 10 per cent of students in years 4-9 had been cyber-bullied.  A more recent 2010 Newspoll survey meanwhile found that 20 per cent of Australians aged 18-24 had been bullied through e-mail, SMS or social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube - all of which are also popular with school-aged children.

Other forms of bullying are also emerging as new technologies percolate the playground.

Phones equipped with cameras and video recorders are being used for sexting (distributing nude or near nude images) - another serious risk for unwitting youngsters. Dr Dooley pointed to a 2009 Pew Institute report which found that 4 per cent of 12-17 year olds had sent a sext, while 15 per cent had received one.

In a media release issued today commenting on the recent Australian survey Darren Kane, Telstra's officer of Internet trust and safety, said that while mobile phones and laptops conferred significant benefits for schoolchildren; 'Like any device connecting to the internet, mobiles and laptops present children with risks they don't necessarily understand.

'Our research shows that while parents are equipping their kids with technology to assist their studies, some are forgetting to equip them with the skills required to use these tools safely - an essential part of a positive online experience.'

The responsibility often then falls to the school, many of which are struggling to develop policies and procedures regarding appropriate use of self-owned technology. While it's possible to clamp down on what students access using the school's wired or wireless networks, it's proving a challenge to police what internet sites children access using commercial communications networks when they use their own technology on school premises.

Dr Gerard White, a principal research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, believes that the explosion of internet connected devices has outpaced the speed at which the rules governing their proper use have been promulgated. He worries that this may in some cases lead to young people unwittingly breaking the law, especially when it came to copying and reusing, or circulating material.

He said that teachers were increasingly expected to provide guidance regarding issues such as cyber safety and copyright.

Telstra's research suggests that parents aren't as yet tackling the issues themselves. Many of them seem to see their main role as providing, rather than policing, the equipment.

According to Telstra's survey only a third of parents closely monitor their children's use of the internet. A further 43 per cent acknowledged 'they keep an eye on it', while 22 per cent said they were relaxed and trusted their child.

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