The seduction of cyberspace



Whether it is the fear of cyberbullying or concern for the addictive allure of online gaming, many parents and grandparents can find themselves in unchartered waters as they strive to guide their children safely through the online world.

For many people, cyberbullying is a new and alarming phenomenon; for others it is all too familiar. The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AFIS) describes cyberbullying as “using technology such as mobile phones or the internet to bully or harass another person”. According to Reach Out (an online mental health resource for young people), one in five young Australians report being cyberbullied. One piece of easily overlooked advice from cybercrime experts is: Make sure you explicitly ask the person to stop.

For parents and grandparents of young people, it can be too easy to feel outwitted or overwhelmed by the task of oversight and care of children and grandchildren who want increasing amounts of screen time. Add to this the unease that bad things can happen as a result and you can be set for a stand-off.

Uniting Church member and parent of two teenagers, Meg Moorhouse, decided to take action in her role on the committee of University High School Families. Parents and students were invited to come together to see the film Screenagers followed by a panel discussion.

Ms Moorhouse said the strong turnout for the screening reflected the level of concern in the community.

“People said that there were more arguments in their households about IT use than anything else,” Ms Moorhouse said. 

The scope of the night was broader than cyberbullying. Questions included issues of digital citizenship and responsibilities for parents in both informing themselves and negotiating boundaries of screen use with young people.

The seduction of playing computer games was also a focus. Ms Moorhouse said she was pleased the young people were present, because the impact on the brain of addictive game design was clearly shown in the Screenagers film.

In the process of researching resources Ms Moorhouse, who has a background in social work, came up with a treasure trove of information (see ‘resources’ below).

As well as extensive online help there was practical advice for friends and families which both celebrates the usefulness of online games while clearly facing the need to limit screen time. Ms Moorhouse said she came away from the information night with greater confidence in the legitimacy of her role as a parent to help her teenagers manage screen use.

“I understand that it is their number-one interest, but it’s my job as a parent to bring a limitation and a balance,” she said.

In the discussion, families described new habits where they would all bring their phones to the table and place them in a pile. The first person to touch their phone would be on dishes duty!

The free online book Parents Guide to Gaming encourages parents and grandparents to familiarise themselves with terms and games and preview them on YouTube. Because the children are excited and stimulated in the games, there is often a sense of letdown at having to leave it. It is vital that there is a repertoire of things to do in the real world that offer play and pleasure and interest. Grandparents are in a key position to offer hands on alternative activities.

The Reach Out foundation is a leading Australian online mental health organisation. For more than 20 years Reach Out has provided tools and tips for young people and their parents. The extensive site houses multiple short videos, and includes advice from young people who have been bullied to assist people currently experiencing bullying.

Their three main messages are: there is an end – there is a light; don’t let yourself be isolated; get to know yourself so you can stand your own ground.

Christians will notice a resonance in the reassurances of the young people on the Reach Out website – Jesus also refused to collude with the cultural shaming of people who were marginalised. As Ms Moorhouse maintains, “We need to keep reminding our kids – ‘Your life isn’t all online. You’ve got a wider belief and a bigger support network.’”

Ms Moorhouse said the issue is part of a larger family conversation.

“It is not just about addressing cyberbullying, it’s about parents and kids working together on the task of becoming good citizens – online and off.”

The supportive bystander

While aware there is ‘no one-size-fits-all approach’, The Australian Human Rights Commission has advice for being a supportive bystander.

Make it clear to your friends that you won’t be involved in bullying behaviour.

Do not harass, tease or spread gossip about others; this includes on social networking sites.

Never forward or respond to messages or photos that may be offensive or upsetting.

Support the person who is being bullied to ask for help e.g. go with them to a place they can get help or provide them with information about where to go for help.

Report it to someone in authority or someone you trust e.g. at school to a teacher, or a school counsellor; at work to a manager; if the bullying is serious, report it to the police; if the bullying occurs on Facebook, report it to Facebook.

Cyberbullying can take many forms [AIFS]

  • Mean messages or threats
  • Rumours online or through texts
  • Hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites and webpages
  • Stealing account information to break in and send damaging messages
  • Pretending to be someone else in order to hurt another person
  • Taking unflattering photos and spreading them online
  • Sending sexually suggestive pictures or messages about another person

Resources – free download ‘Parent’s Guide to Gaming’ (booklet produced by Manningham YMCA) – Reach Out offers excellent short videos, resources for young people and parents  reviews of movies – be informed – Movie trailer for Screenagers – extensive section on media and technology including resources, reviews, Australian content for different age groups, and local experts. – Vic Police cyber safety program – terrific fact sheets including aspects of social media, internet contracts, sections for kids and parents. – Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network

Police – ask for Cyber Crime or a Youth Liaison Officer

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