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Expert helps Catholic educators keep children safe online

cyberbullying expert

Cyber advice: Professor Donna Cross helps Catholic educators with some practical advice on keeping children safe in the cyber world. Photo: Mark Bowling

CYBER bullying, sexting and the sharing of personal information are issues of significant concern for Queensland schools, families and communities.

However, blaming technology and restricting young people’s use of the Internet, iPads or mobile phones is not the answer, according to a cyber-bullying expert, Professor Donna Cross.

Speaking at a Queensland Catholic educators forum on cyberspace and student wellbeing, Prof Cross said access to the Internet could have many positive outcomes, including better social support, access to health and educational information, and improved relationships with distant family and friends.

“Children and adolescents who are banned from using technology often find ways around this and learn to hide their technology use from adults, which isolates them if something goes wrong,” Prof Cross, a member of the National Centre Against Bullying, a professor at the Telethon Kids Institute and a former Western Australian of the Year, said.

“Our research at the Telethon Kids Institute has shown us that it is more useful and effective to help young people make better choices about their technology use, seek help when problems occur, and help their peers use the Internet and social networking sites in more positive ways.

“The best way to do this is by harnessing technology itself, particularly because it is so accessible, familiar, engaging and intuitive for today’s young people.”

Prof Cross and her Telethon Kids Institute team have worked with secondary students and West Australian institutions to develop a new mobile app called ImageUp to help adolescents avoid inappropriate image-sharing.

“ImageUp is a great app developed by young people. It helps them to help themselves making better decisions when interacting online,” she said. “About 70 students from WA secondary schools were nominated to be student cyber leaders, and they attended a two-day student summit conducted by my team.

“Working in teams, the students developed clever and engaging ideas for protecting their privacy, deleting inappropriate or embarrassing images and deciding whether images should be shared or deleted.

“Our team analysed these apps and, together with our other research findings, determined that what young people really need is help making decisions about their communications online.

“When children leave the classroom and they are on their phone and they are feeling in love, or they are feeling angry and they fire off an image, not thinking (because their pre-frontal cortex is not engaged) so the ImageUp app was designed to educate children in the moment.”

ImageUp allows young people to share photos to a number of social media services (including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) instantaneously, and keep track of what has been posted where.

Before an image is posted, however, the user is presented with a brief, entertaining message about how to use social networking sites more safely and problems to be aware of.

These messages encourage young people to pause before sharing their image, so they can consider possible repercussions and decide if they are sure they want to share it.

Prof Cross said ImageUp had important design features.

“There is a lot of pressure if I am 14, to send a nude or semi-nude image to my boyfriend,” she said. “It’s like second base. In my day it would have been holding hands or even kissing.

“Third base is kissing. So in these days you send a nude or semi-nude image before you kiss.

“We are really concerned that kids feel it is normative because they think everyone else is doing it and the expectation is a very powerful motivator of behaviour.

“So in the app library we have a whole lot of messages the child can send instead of sending a nude image. And they are funny statements developed by kids to avoid losing face and just keeping things light.

“So there is one that says ‘I’ll send you an image of me immediately after my dad sends you one of him’.”

Prof Cross said the app could help young people protect themselves online and avoid damage to their social, emotional and mental health.

ImageUp is now available for free download.

Professor Donna Cross’s top tips to help keep your kids safe online 


CHILDREN spend more time online at home than in any other environment, such as schools, so parents need to monitor how long their kids spend online, and they need to know devices are used in places where others can see them.

In any social networking sites, the parent should be a friend on those sites, and know all a child’s passwords, and when the parent calls on the phone, the child must immediately answer.

Parents should have an agreement between themselves and their kids. 

Ideally from the time when a child receives their mobile phone or other device there should be agreed rules around usage. For instance, the phone needs to be in a basket by the breakfast table by 9pm.

An agreement means the kids and the parents have worked out together what is the safest way to use devices. It should be written down, and everyone should know there are consequences if the agreement is broken.

Spend time playing with your kids online. 

If your children are spending a lot of time online this holidays, join them. Call of Duty is the most ghastly game, but find out what they are playing. If I want to join Instagram, get your children to show you how to join Instagram, but let them also teach you to use it more safely and in that teaching you will find out if they know what to do as well.

Learn with your child these holidays.

Spending time watching your child in the online environment to understand their behaviours. Kids love to show their parents what they can do.

If your child is beating hard at the keyboard, find out what it is making them angry or frustrated.  Don’t allow the device to become a barrier between yourself and your child – make online an environment where you can come together.

Aim to understand what it is your child is doing in the online environment, so you can relate to your child, not become an adversary.

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