It’s no secret that technology plays an integral role in the lives of young people today. It’s how they connect, learn and play. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, what exactly does that impact of a technology-rich upbringing look like for the young Australians we work with, and what can we do to ensure their online experiences are healthy, positive and safe?

Here at the Cyber Safety Project we support hundreds and meet thousands of primary and secondary aged students annually. To ensure we can empower the young people we meet to take control and manage their own cyber safety and digital wellbeing, when working with secondary learners we aim to conduct a Digital Habits Survey. Insights gained from these surveys provide our team with an in-depth look at the ways young people are accessing and engaging in the online world. The strength of this process ensures the individual needs of every school community can be met through creating a tailored and meaningful learning experience.

In 2021, we received over 3200 responses to our Digital Habits Surveys. Some results in the graphic below may affirm your current expectations of the challenges that are faced by young people. Some may surprise you. Most importantly, what we have learned from this data is that, overwhelmingly, young people enjoy connecting online, want to stay safe and do have some knowledge of the risks involved with being a connected digital citizen. It’s our hope that publishing these general results will assist you to plan to support the young people in your community to navigate the online world and build safe and healthy habits as digital citizens.

 

What did we find?

It will come as no surprise that a majority of young people acknowledged social media was a distraction for them. In fact, 44% of students surveyed felt the need to constantly check their smartphone or device. During learning time, in social settings and when spending quality time with family, this desire to check connected devices was present. Nearly two thirds of students surveyed felt social media was a distraction to their learning, and more than half felt social media distracted them from their family. Many adults find themselves frequently losing focus on tasks as they give in to the pull of social media apps. After all, these apps are designed to do this. Self-control and pressures such as this can be difficult for the young developing brain, particularly for those who know no life without social media.

Social media can have tremendous benefits and is a wonderful way to stay connected, be inspired and entertained. Unfortunately, these spaces online also contribute to the decline in self esteem of young people. At the Cyber Safety Project, we refer to social media posts/feeds as a persons ‘highlights reel’. Someone’s highlights, or best bits, are considered and curated. It’s a snapshot (often filtered for improvement) of a single moment in time. The constant scroll of ‘highlights’ can have an impact on the self esteem and mental health of users. 45% of respondents felt they compared their lives to others on social media, and 40% said social media has made them feel bad about themselves.

Over-use of technology may affect wellbeing, but accessing social media and social gaming can also put digital users at security and safety risks. How we connect, the type information we share, and who we allow to interact with us online can greatly affect our experiences online. Only 78% of students surveyed had private social media accounts. Of those who regularly played online games, 47% acknowledged having connected online multiple times with someone they first met online. In a world where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to verify the true identity of others online, these practices increase the likelihood of young people being exposed to people with malintent, including cyber criminals, child groomers, extortion and cyber bullying.

 

What can we do?

Technology is here to stay, and there will always be new and exciting technologies emerging for how we learn, connect, play, work and create. As educators, parents and a community, it’s our role to support young people to be future ready and develop the skills they need to safely and respectfully participate online. Consultation with young people highlighted that young people want their trusted adults to have the necessary knowledge to help them and be confident they won’t be patronised or punished [by their parents] for sharing and seeking help. So how can you build that trusting relationship with your students or children at home? These three simple strategies coupled with positivity, openness and a willingness to listen could help you and your child build a more trusting and open relationship about their digital experiences.

1. Start the conversation (and keep it going)

Talk. Talk to your children about technology. Talk to them about the ways you use it, strategies you put in place to keep yourself safe when you’re online, and approaches you take to ensure you take a break from your devices. Ask your children questions, for example, “What would you do if you saw something online that made you feel uncomfortable?” and “What would you do if someone you didn’t know in real life contacted you online?”. Start these conversations from a young age. A very young age. If your pre-schooler is video chatting with their grandparents or streaming a show on Netflix, or your students are using Mathletics, this is a great time to start the conversations. Engaging in open conversations at a young age means these conversations are normalised in your household or classroom, and they will be easier to continue during the teenage years and beyond.

Not sure where to start? Take a look at our Conversation Checklist. Finding it difficult to find the time to have these conversations? Why not have a whole family chat over dinner, or use the ten minute drive to school to pose and discuss one question. Educators: a chat during lunch eating time, or posing one of these questions during circle time will open up regular, essential conversations. Our Emotions Cards are the perfect addition to these conversations – and even come with 10 suggested activities for circle time!

Feeling nervous about what might come up in conversation or looking for some suggested responses you can use? Check out our other blog posts or contact us, we’re always happy to help or to share a resource you might find handy.

2. Be explicit about your support

Many parents say to us “My child would tell me if they were being threatened online.” But research shows that 1 in 3 sextortion victims “had never told anyone, largely because of shame or embarrassment” (Thorn Sextortion Survey, 2017). Our recommendation? Don’t rely on ‘hope’ that they would come to you. Ensure you have explicitly told your children or students you are there for them to talk to and tell them that no matter what happens you are there to keep them safe, to help problem solve and fix mistakes together. Then, when they come to you about a problem, stay calm. Even if you feel angry, showing this emotion in the moment will deter them from coming to you again in the future for fear of shame, embarrassment or punishment.

3. Be a healthy technology role model

Monkey see, monkey do. Be your child’s biggest influencer. If the young people in our lives are seeing us constantly looking at our phones, without setting limits, and disregarding online recommendations and security settings, they will follow suit. On the other hand, if those same young people watch us set healthy boundaries, explicitly check privacy settings and show them these selections, and use technology in a balanced and positive manner, they will develop these same habits. We know it can be challenging to set firm boundaries, especially with determined teenagers, and it can be equally difficult to break our own habits. To help, we have developed our Digital Use Agreement and Digital Balance Challenge.

Author: Jaclyn Tasker (Content Creator, Cyber Safety Project)