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Experts advise caution on cyber safety program targeting children as young as four

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Cyber safety: “I agree with the education of young children, but it just needs to be very well done so as to not sexualise or scandalise.”

THE FEDERAL Government’s efforts to teach children as young as four about cyber safety must not sexualise or scandalise innocent minds, a relationships educator has cautioned.

Paul Ninnes, whose organisation Real Talk Australia delivers sexual integrity presentations to 30,000 students in Catholic and state schools every year, responded to the announcement that the Australian Federal Police’s ThinkUKnow cyber safety program would be open to children as young as four.

The decision was announced on Safer Internet Day on February 6 to offer children from kindergarten to Year 2 cyber safety training through the program, which offers presentations on issues such as sexting, cyber bullying, online child exploitation and online privacy.

Federal Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security Angus Taylor said the program was responding to law enforcement agencies seeing children as young as four uploading sexually explicit material to social media and engaging with online child sex offenders.

“We need to get on top of this and fast,” Mr Taylor said.

Mr Ninnes agreed that young children needed to be educated on cyber safety but said safeguards should be implemented to minimise the risk of sexualising children.

“As an example, we have had many reports from schools and parents of young children being exposed to explicit sexual content but few children have been taught what to do when this happens,” Mr Ninnes said.

“I agree with the education of young children, but it just needs to be very well done so as to not sexualise or scandalise.”

Mr Ninnes said parents should be the primary educators when it came to protecting children online.

When it comes to children seeing inappropriate content, he said it was not a case of if but when children saw it.

“We have gone from the possibility that children may see inappropriate content, to the reality that at some stage all children will likely see inappropriate content,” he said.

“Essentially, check your kids know what is good and bad and what to do when, not if, they encounter inappropriate material.”

Better supervision and placing limits on technology use could also help reduce potential dangers.

“Many of the issues would be reduced if kids were better supervised and more limited in their tech use,” Mr Ninnes said.

He is planning a session on cyber safety for young children with a Catholic Brisbane-based mothers’ group.

Following the AFP’s announcement of rolling out the program to children as young as four, Brisbane archdiocese’s social arm Centacare has now encouraged their child care services to book the program for their children in care.

Centacare runs 11 kindergartens and 11 long-day care centres located on Catholic school sites, and at least 22 children are attending each of these services daily.

Centacare regional co-ordinator for child care services Michelle Densmore said kindergartens and day care centres should do all they could to better protect children online.

“I think it’s really important particularly for the younger kindergarten children as we have younger children basically playing online,” Mrs Densmore said.

She said the child care services industry should realise the importance of talking about cyber safety with younger children.

“We’ve had over the years professional development around cyber safety for our educators and teachers, but I actually think the realisation is that cyber safety talks are not just for the school-aged now,” Mrs Densmore said.

“If we can get that info out earlier that would be great because we do have younger children having access to a lot more these days than we ever did.”

Mrs Densmore said centres still needed to be aware of the potential risks of over-stimulating young children with any cyber safety content.

The AFP’s ThinkUKnow program is available to book at www.thinkuknow.org.au.

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