Cyber safety during COVID-19: In conversation with Lesley Podesta, CEO of Alannah & Madeline Foundation and Lesa Gale, Assistant Commissioner Northern Command of the AFP – Podcast Episode 6

As the nation undergoes social isolation, Australian children are looking to their devices for entertainment, to connect with friends and for education purposes. While online mediums can increase connection, they also increase children’s exposure to potential risks including bullying and exploitation.

In this pod cast Managing Partner Sally Nicholes joins Lesley Podesta, CEO of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation and Lesa Gale, AFP Assistant Commissioner, to discuss online safety for children amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Lesley Podesta’s biography: www.amf.org.au/bio-articles/lesley-podesta/

 

Sally Nicholes:

Welcome everyone to the Nicholes Family Lawyers podcast. I’m Sally Nicholes, founder and managing partner of Nicholes Family Lawyers. Today, I will be speaking with two guests, Lesley Podesta and Lesa Gale. Lesley is the CEO of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a well-known children’s charity supporting Australian children who have experienced or witnessed violence. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation offers our community a broad range of care prevention and advocacy programs for children. My second guest, Lesa Gale, is Assistant Commissioner, Northern Command of ACCCE and Child Exploitation in Australia. Lesley, Lesa and I will be speaking today about some of the challenges the children might face in the wake of the Corona virus pandemic, but particularly focusing on cyber safety. As a parent myself, this issue is very important, but it is also issue which we as a community should be turning our minds to.

Welcome Lesley and Lesa and thank you for joining me!

Lesley:

Lovely

Lesa:

Thank you Sally.

Sally:

So the whole world is now going virtual with [inaudible] including schools for many children. What challenges or risk to children might we expect in this new virtual world? Lesley would you like to start or Lesa would like to start?

Lesley:

Well, before we go on the virtual world, I think the first thing that I want to say is that children, like all of us, are feeling a range of emotions, you know, we’re all worried a little bit about our own health in our community and their safety and also the health of their loved ones, especially the people we can’t see. I think most of us have picked up on some of the anxiety about the impact on the economy and most kids probably know somebody who’s lost their jobs. Children are feeling pretty disconnected because schools have suddenly stopped being places where they go every day and not being able to go to the park and go to shops and go to the places where they normally go, to church, to libraries, to playgrounds. They’re all things that have made a lot of kids feel “what’s happening in their world?” On the other hand, we also know that a lot of children are really enjoying having their families at home with them seven days a week and seeing mum and dad so much more often and being able to have dinners together so much more often and doing a lot of things that they might not have had time to do before like walk the dog together as a family. Cooking together, reading, playing games together. So the world has changed a lot and not all of these changes are terrible. But I think that we really need to recognize that children, just like all of us, are really trying to come to terms pretty quickly with some very major challenges and a sense that there is an external threat to their lives that they might not have lived with before.

Sally:

What do you think parents can do to support their children’s connection with friends and school community in a sustainable and healthy way?

Lesley: 

You know, it’s interesting. This time has really, I think put paid to the debate that we had, we’ve been having for some time. You know for a long time, we’ve had this debate. How often should our children use screens, you know. How important this technology in our kids’ lives. Let’s have a really strong balance around technology for all of us, while our children are being physically distant from their friends and their teachers. All of us are learning to use the technology and the resources that we have within our homes to help keep them connected. So what we’ve seen now is that for all of us, we’re a lot more dependent on technology than ever before for our education, for work, but also for our social contact and for many of us our recreation and our creativity and our shopping and even for some of us our physical exercise, we’re learning to see the full range of things that are possible by being connected online.

We also know that many parents are struggling to understand and supervise their children’s tech use as well as what they want to do. And even though schools are working really hard to keep students connected, implementing virtual learning with some terrific resources, we know that not every parent feels really confident about doing that. One of the things that we’ve seen and it’s not surprising because kids are now so much more connected in the last couple of weeks. We have seen worryingly an increase in cyber bullying. There’s been reports of about a twenty percent rise in reports of cyberbullying and that’s always really concerning, I think. We’ve also seen though that there’s been an increase in some racial harassment of children online, particularly children from within aging communities because of some of the general fears and distortions being spread around about how the virus is transmitted. And we’ve also seen a big pile on of kids who might be inadvertently breaking some of the social distancing rules and regulations. So we know that within this environment there’s a bit more attention, a bit more opportunity to be able to find cracks within children’s confidence. So all of us, I think, as families have got some responsibilities so I might go through some of the things that might help families be able to deal with that environment.

Sally:

Certainly, what parents can do in the tech environment to protect their children.

Lesley:

Yeah, so I think the first thing is to recognize that as a family we’re in this together. And that might sound a little bit corny, but it’s a real opportunity while we’re having dinner or having breakfast together to talk about what does it mean for us to be sequestered in this house together whether it’s a unit or if it’s a big house. It doesn’t really matter. Suddenly, we’re all face-to-face mostly 24 hours a day in the place together. So learning to come to terms with the fact that the NBN might not accommodate all of us at the same time.

Lesa:

Very true, that’s happened in my household.

Lesley:

That for different times, for some of us, we need to be, for example, talking out loud or being part of Zoom or Microsoft team meetings. So, what does it mean about being respectful to each other when we all want to use our strengths?   How do we make sure that we are using the internet or the relatively rationed download capacity within the house. Taking turns scheduling at talking to each other and acknowledging that everyone has needs, that’s a really important part of it.

I think a really good thing to do is learning from each other about how the alerts work on their our apps and our phones. What do we need to turn on? What do we need to turn off? It’s really frustrating to be in a group with 5 people suddenly within the same couple of rooms and have all of the alerts going on and off each other’s devices regularly can drive people crazy. Helping people understand what the settings are within their devices and their social media accounts so that we’ve got high levels of security. Because we might be sharing data within our family for the first time that we have them. One of the things I think is really important for families is agreeing when and where it’s okay to use devices. So making agreements about whether we’re going to use within bedrooms, within communal areas or not, within areas of privacy.

Just having those discussions and about talking about the respect for people’s privacy. On the other hand, what I think is really important is that families particularly with younger children, also take this time to spend a bit more time getting to know what their children’s online activities might involve. This is a really good time for it to be almost a learning opportunity for you as a parent while teaching your child as well. So, get them to show you the games and the apps that they want to play and why so you’re making a more educated decision and having a conversation with them where you respect the fact that this is important to them and why. But also educating yourself as a parent. You’re going to be in a room with your child playing this game for the next few months. You actually now have no reason not to know how safe they are or they aren’t. So it’s a real opportunity to step into their world and learn a lot more about the things that excite them and for you to have a bit more of a note of caution, I guess, about what that might be.  There are some very popular activities and apps the children want to use that really are not particularly suitable for them. This is the time where you have a responsibility to get to know more than you’ve ever known about their online lives.

Sally:

Because I guess one of the concerns with a lot of parents is that virtual schooling is starting in the next couple of days and for many people the iPads are going to be a form of babysitting which we know is a big no-no and but you might want to articulate that more. But I was thinking, Lesa, from your point of view and for you too, has there been an increase in predatory behaviour at all? Because of people taking advantage of the fact that so many children are on devices at the moment? 

Lesa:

Thanks, Sally. I would echo the commentary that Lesley just provided in terms of some of those key messages and things that families and parents in particular can do to help keep their children safe online. And just before I answer your question directly if that’s okay, Sally? I just wanted to add that the ACCCE last year did some research in terms of parents talking to their children about online safety and what came out of that research was that only 52 percent of parents have those conversations with their children. So that’s a bit of a worry. So when you talk about predatory behaviours and what do we as law enforcement see. The fact that a vast majority, a large portion of parents aren’t even having any conversation with their children is certainly, as a police officer, a bit of a worry.

Sally:

Lesa did they say that it’s because it was lack of their own knowledge and privacy?

Lesa:

Yes, privacy plays a part and you know having to have those conversations and controls around, I think it was something that Lesley said previously, about knowing what your children are doing. What applications they are accessing when they are connecting online with friends or with unknown people. It’s having sometimes those difficult conversations with your children, but I think it’s also about making kids feel safe and comfortable having those conversations. So conversely, if parents make it so that it’s okay and it’s not a big deal to have that conversation, I think that’s going to contribute in some ways to seeing hopefully a greater number of parents having more awareness of what kids are accessing online. I don’t know if you agree or not?  Lesley, I’m hoping you agree with what I’m saying.

Lesley:

I completely agree. I think one of the things that we know is that the worst thing you can do with your child is when something goes wrong,  to have the first response was just to say “it’s your fault”  or the first response to say “we’re going to get you off that app” or “I’m going to take the device off you”; this is the worst response you can have when something goes wrong, because the first thing your child is going to learn is if something goes wrong as soon as I tell them I’m going to be the one who takes the problem, it’s my problem and I’m going to lose it. You’ve got to have an opportunity, this is a really good opportunity to reset your own feelings about that and understand that your job is to be your child’s guide and support while they explore the online world. And recognize it’s going to be a part of their life forever. And the answer is not to ban them, the answer is to equip them with the right skills and knowledge to be as safe as possible. And also to be acting as a responsible and ethical person themselves online. So it’s a real opportunity, not only just to keep them safe but also reinforcing the sort of behaviours you want them to be as a good online citizen as well.

Lesa:

And, I think sadly from a law enforcement perspective, you know, we know that last year the ACCCE received around approximately 17,000 reports of online child or referrals of online child exploitation. And that’s pre-pandemic, you know, so I guess in answer to your question, Sally and to reaffirm what Lesley indicated how critical it is that children online feel comfortable and can trust that they can go to their parents if something has happened online. We know that as consistent with the environment we find ourselves in that there are going to be predators out there who are going to exploit the opportunities of the online environment to exploit children. That’s just the reality of this and so in line with the fact that children are spending more and more time at home and more time online, we are seeing, we are experiencing an increase in referrals in alignment with that, whether there are reports from the public or there are referrals from our law enforcement partners or NGOs. So, certainly, you know, the evidence at the moment is consistent with the fact that more people are online, meaning that we are receiving more referrals.

Lesley:

Really simple things you can do Sally, I think as a parent, you help your child from a very early age and understand what private means. What does it mean? How do you keep your own details private? And how do you maintain your privacy online? Help them understand what to do. If someone approaches them who they don’t know. How they can block somebody who’s doing something inappropriate. How they can make a report and also how they can come to you. There’s lots of practical things that parents can do around improving the security settings of the devices their children are using and checking the games. So for example, a lot of online games have a chat feature and parents often are unaware of that or they think that “oh, I’m only going to let them chat with the three friends and I know those are three friends personally”, what we know is that there is so many security breaches of chat functions within children’s online games, that by and large,  they’re not something we recommend at all for children, particularly children under 13. You’ve got to be really careful and if your child is playing an online game that has a chat function and attached to it, being hyper-vigilant about that because as Lesa said, unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of the fact that our children think someone who’s friendly is a friend and they’re not necessarily. So these are some of  the things that you can do that keep your child safer within what can be, you know, a fantastic opportunity. But also it can be an area of risk contained for children.

Sally:

And if any if anyone listening to this podcast wanted to go to an area on the website either on ACCCE or Alannah Madeline, there are great tips and educational links out there on both websites, Lesley, do you want to talk a little bit about ACCCE and how it was formed because I think we mentioned it…

Yes, going back to ACCCE Lesa, it would be fantastic if you could talk a bit about how it was actually formed but it’s quite an amazing organization that’s growing rapidly being under the stewardship of the Australian Federal Police, would you like to chat about that because we would direct listeners to that website as well. 

Lesa:

Absolutely. So, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation was established through funding from the federal government to create a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency centre to make Australia the leading country in terms of how we counter….well, how we detect, deter, disrupt, prevent child exploitation from occurring and as you correctly said Sally, the Australian Federal Police are currently the lead agency that coordinates the efforts of the centre nationally. And as you both know, the prevention phase is critical to the work delivered by the ACCCE. We see ourselves as that coordination point and that it’s really vital for it to be successful that we have engagement and contributions from important agencies, World Congress, the Alannah and Madeline Foundation and others, you know that we all work in collaboration with each other to really deliver nationally consistent prevention actions through the centre. So we’ve all come together previously and we’ve all participated in different term working groups and forums as part of that coordination point. 

So this Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation really brings together agencies from across government, from across non-government organizations, industry to partner and collaborate on delivering national consistency in terms of how we all work together to counter child exploitation. That’s one of the strengths of the centre and that’s one of the parts, I guess, that have really lead it to going from success to success, particularly, you know, with law enforcement at the operational arm, I think, you see from the ACCCE, it is that capability that supports our state and territory partners and our international partners to go forth and deliver against those predators out there that look to cause harm to our kids. And it’s not it in itself…. it goes and supports some others to counter the online child exploitation in particular. We’re seeing it grow from strength to strength. We look to have Queensland police join the ACCCE in the not too distant future and our wish and hope is that we will also have secondees from other National, State and Territory jurisdictions in the not too distant future and we have Jon Rouse, who now works in the ACCCE. And for those people listening that have worked in the child exploitation space for some time, they will know of Jon’s expertise. So that’s a wonderful inclusion to the centre, to have his expertise there and we’re looking to have some international experts particularly around things like victim identification to better support the work that our national partners do so that capability can enhance the work undertaken by our partners so that we can hopefully protect kids much more effectively at a national level or a global level, I should say.

Lesley:

And we are such a strong supporter of the work of the centre and you know, I can already see there’s some amazing things that are coming out of it through the collaboration and one more thing that’s really interesting is, I think we’re all coming to terms with the fact that we recognize through the research that parents are not good at having this conversation with their kids. And being able to develop some better tools, better linkages with communities that need to learn about the risk. But also, how do you build protective behaviours into your children’s activities, knowledge and practices. That’s a really important part of what I think the centre is doing. It’s trying to bring together that research base and evidence base with practitioners and with the organizations and groups who can help deliver some of those networks and craft some of those messages. And that’s wonderful, you know to see that preventative arm as well as the policing arm, investigative arm working together because it means we all recognize that the exponential growth in this requires that we have to really lift our game. So I’m excited by some of the changes that we’re already seeing and it’s a terrific example of leadership I think, across a lot of spheres when Lesa says she rattles of all those groups, that’s not easy to get that level of cooperation. It’s not easy, but it’s already bearing fruit. 

Lesa:

Thank you, we try. 

Lesley:

It’s true. I’m also going to raise one other thing if that’s okay. One of the things we really noticed has been that every disaster produces an environment for scamming and one of the things that we know is that it happens during hurricanes, it happened during the bush fires and we have sadly already recognized that this is happening online and really weirdly that so much of the scamming is being directed towards adolescents as well. It’s very interesting. So while adults have always been the target of scams and manipulations, Covid-19 seems in particular to have brought out a lot of things which are kind of child-attractive scams and misinformation and disinformation campaigns. So what we know, so early into this disease, is that information keeps evolving and the trouble is that when the science is not settled on something it gives a real opportunity for people to try to distort messages and to exploit people’s worries and concerns. So some of the things that we’ve seen have been emails, texts, ads, phone calls, social media messages which promised to push you first on the list for the Covid-19 vaccination or promising a remedy that’s going to help or prevention measures that you can take. We’ve already seen those. We’ve seen links that invite people to click on to get information about where there a Covid-19 outbreaks in their suburb which puts a link on this: it’s really enticing because people want to know how many people in my suburb? Click on that link and then it asks people to provide personal information when they click on the link. We’ve seen invitations inviting people to be personally tested, fast-track testing for Covid . And also, if you know somebody who’s been affected by Covid, where they can get help and we can help you with that and we can also provide funding to support you if you need if they’ve been affected by Covid. All of those things are because people realise that there’s a level of attention and a lot of interest in this subject. So we’ve seen people trying to exploit that by sending out things that are going to try to trick people. Some of the things that we want you to do, having conversations with your children is if somebody is sending you something and you don’t know them, be sceptical first about what this might be. If you do not know who they are then you can’t really be sure that the information is true.  Remind them that some people say things that aren’t true and that’s a really important message to everybody. You know, young kids can read but they don’t always have a level of judgement, particularly if something is designed on a page or in a link that looks official. Remind children that passwords and personal details are really important privacy things. They’re just like your phone number or your bank details – they need to be kept private and to never share them online, no matter what they’re being asked. Help children to understand what a scam might look like. If they get a message, does it contain a weird-looking web address? How to click through the content of the web address, ask if there are spelling mistakes in it, amazingly so many of the scams have spelling mistakes. Does it claim to be from one person that shows up on a different address? Does it ask you to click on a link? Never click on the link!  And does it invite you to take up a free offer? And does it ask you to send personal invitations in details or send money? One of the things that parents can do during this time knowing that their children, particularly young adolescents, are being targeted for these scams is to make sure all of your antivirus and anti-spyware software on your computer is up-to-date. Do a check, do a scan of that and remind children if somebody asks you to donate money, even if it’s for a good cause come and talk to you beforehand; don’t donate money because there are unfortunately tricksters.  If your children do get scammed it’s also really important to remind them that it’s not that they’re stupid and that’s really important. That scammers are doing this deliberately to play on their curiosity or their need for knowledge or their good feelings and that a lot of adults have been scammed as well. But also show them what they can do to remedy that, how they can report it, how they need to talk to a trusted adult, how they can go to the ACCCE scam watch and report them and how they can report them to the office of safety or the platform from which they’ve gone to help children take a bit of control if they’ve been tricked.

Sally:

All really good life skills and Lesa, what do you think parents should do if they see something really disturbing online involving children? What is the message, what do you want them to do?

Lesa:

For parents, if their child is experiencing any issues online, the first thing we would say is that it’s critical that you try and gather some evidence in whatever way you can – maybe taking some screenshots for example or photos of whatever the particular content is. That would be the first thing, then once you’ve gathered some evidence then we would be suggesting that you block and report what it is if it’s an App, a site or a platform – whatever the issue is that has occurred, please report it. The message from a police officer first and foremost above and beyond anything else if you think your child is in imminent danger always always always please call Triple Zero before you do anything else. The other way that parents can also report if they are not sure is the Report Abuse button that is on the AFP website and it’s also on our “ThinkUKnow” website which will be connected to the ACCCE website. We encourage parents to report it through the Report Abuse button. And also if all else fails, I think as Lesley indicated there are other e-safety locations where parents can go to look for resources regarding how to refer or seek advice.

Sally:

What we will do is to provide the links that you’ve mentioned today so we can actually help parents who are listening to this podcast. We will hopefully have these at the bottom of our website so you can all have a look at that and in particular that education piece also. 

Lesley:

Parents can stand with their kids and do the “Dolly’s Dream Digi Pledge” as well. It’s super fun and it allows them to go together as the parents and the children doing simulated activities which they might be doing online and answering questions and thinking about their answers and it’s terrific. We’ve had lots of families do it so far. They’ve really enjoyed it and every time they’ve done that they’ve learned something new – it’s a really good fun way to learn together and it’s got all of the updated links and apps that you can play with and you can see what it’s like to actually go on Instagram together if you’ve never done it as a parent and what it means and how you do it and how you report etc. 

Sally:

Brilliant, well Lesley, make sure that you send me that link, and we’ll make sure it’s connected to the podcast.

Lesa:

Could I also ask if they can connect the ThinkUKnow website also if that’s OK?

Sally:

Absolutely. 

Lesa:

It also gives some advice on other agencies like Kids Helpline and other agencies. 

Sally:

That is a very brilliant set of advices and links.  Thank you to both of you extremely busy people doing very important work, thank you so much for being part of this podcast. I know it will be incredibly popular and we will make sure that it gets out to all the right people and online.  Until further, it’s been really lovely speaking with you soon. Thank you very much.

 

Useful Links:

Alannah & Madeline Foundation eSmart Digital Licence: www.digitallicence.com.au/

Dolly’s Dream DigiPledge: parenthub.dollysdream.org.au/about-the-…igipledge/

Esmart Schools: www.esmart.org.au/

Kids Helpline: A free, private and confidential telephone counselling service – 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au/

Parent line: A state-wide counselling and support service for all Victorian parents – 13 22 89 or 1300 272 736

Safe Steps: A domestic violence hotline service for women and children – 1800 015 188 www.safesteps.org.au/

WIRE Helpline: A free support, referral, and information for all Victorian women (non-binary and gender diverse inclusive) – 1300 134 130 www.wire.org.au/

Relationship Space: An online program to help parents manage divorce – www.relationshipspace.com.au

Online Family Violence Intervention Order Application – fvio.mcv.vic.gov.au

Relationships Australia: www.relationships.org.au/

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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