Ban devices in the bedroom: the plea to keep kids safe
AN alarming number of primary school students are being targeted by online predators, forcing schools to introduce cyber safety education for both youths and their parents.
Principals have revealed a worrying trend of pre-teens being sent naked photos and asked to return the "favour" with their own.
As well as introducing cyber safety programs, many schools have installed sophisticated software on school computers to track threats from predators, stamp out cyber bullying and block porn sites.
But education authorities worry the biggest threat for students is not school laptops, which can be monitored, but phones and tablets owned by students themselves.
They worry that primary students, more of whom are now coming to school with mobile phones, could be stumbling across porn or being targeted by online predators who ask them to simulate sex acts as part of role plays in games.
Authorities are so worried about the technology addiction gripping young people with mobiles they are even pleading with parents to ban devices from bedrooms at night.
One Sunshine Coast school is urging parents to put a daily limit of 45 minutes to an hour on device use and to stop kids from using mobiles an hour before they go to bed because of the impacts it has on sleep patterns.
One parent told how their daughter's personality had completely changed as she spent much of the night online talking to someone on the other side of the world.
Teenage girls, groomed online for months by a "boy" on the other end of a social media chat, were even going to meet absolute strangers for sex.
One girl, who thought she was talking to a boy her own age, was catching a bus to meet him for sex but was stopped by her parents, who had found out just in time.
"It could have been anyone at the other end," one principal, who did not want to be named in relation to the incident, said.
A recent study found two-in-five parents were worried by cyber bullying but only one-in-five were concerned their kids would be unsafe using the internet.
Telstra's Schoolyard to Screen study found one-in-three (36%) of Australian teens had been personally bullied online, with one-in-five saying that had occurred in the past month.
In the case of the region's Catholic schools, education of both parents and children is seen as the key to protecting youngsters against what one official described as "the biggest problem" facing schools today.
Communications manager for Brisbane Catholic Education, John Phelan, said while students signed an agreement on proper use of school computers, they were also taught about online dangers from their earliest days in the classroom.
Parents were also offered advice and could choose to attend a range of workshops and education sessions hosted by the schools.
"One of the biggest problems we face in our schools today - in fact the biggest problem - is the inappropriate use of social media by kids," Mr Phelan said.
"On our school networks we have filters and can lock out inappropriate sites but it is the parents' responsibility to monitor what their children are doing at home.
"Because of that, there is an expectation that our schools will educate parents on the appropriate use of technology by their children."
One of the key messages to parents was the need to ensure students were in a public part of the house when accessing social media, not "locked in their bedroom where no one can see what they are doing".
"It's a concerning world and we are constantly seeing cases before the court where predators are posing as 13, 14, 15-year-old kids but instead they are literally a dirty old man in his 40s or 50s, trying to organise a meet-up or trying to get kids to send them photos," Mr Phelan said.
"That's the message to the kids and particularly to the parents - you never now who it is that you are dealing with online.
"Ideally, we tell them they should actually monitor what their kids are doing and have access to their passwords.
"Really, children in primary school shouldn't be on social media at all because pre-teen kids really don't have the mental filters to be able to determine the bona-fides of the people they are communicating with online."
Immanuel Lutheran College principal, Colin Minke, said parents and educators should all be concerned about what children were doing in cyberspace and the school had put a range of safeguards and education programs in place.
The school was committed to ensuring each student was equipped with the necessary skills to flourish as healthy, safe and active citizens in the 21st Century.
"Given the complex and rapidly changing world, it is essential students acquire critical inquiry skills to research and understand the influences on their own and others' health, safety and wellbeing," Mr Minke said.
"As a core component of our Blended Learning Program, students are actively engaged in programs that promote digital literacy, developing an awareness of their digital footprint and how they can become cyber savvy citizens of the 21st Century.
"All students sign an Acceptable Network Usage Policy and whilst at school, our Cyberhound system protects students from accessing inappropriate information.
"The system allows category-based web filtering and can be adapted for primary or secondary school usage.
"The college has also invested in a new program called AB Tutor, which allows teachers to view every student's screen during class time to ensure they're on task and behaving responsibly."
Students were taught about responsible use of computers from primary school, while the college had an eLearning coordinator and eLearning coaches across to support teachers' understanding of safe and productive digital environments.
Suncoast Christian College principal Greg Mattiske said cyber safety had become a top priority since the college introduced its laptop program because the school felt it had a duty of care to students.
Parents were required to attend a detailed cyber safety briefing before laptops were handed out, while students were also counselled in risks around predators, bullying and inappropriate websites.
The college also used the CyberHound program, which provided protection against pornography, spam, hacking, hate, drugs, phishing, fraud, spyware, malicious and anonymiser (proxy) sites.
It scans internet searches and social networking chat and sends an email alert when a college policy is breached.
But Mr Mattiske said it could not stop everything, so parents were urged to have a policy where students kept technology out of the bedroom, or at least had their bedroom door open.
Some parents were installing apps like OurPact, on devices which they could use to limit internet use and time online.