Schools struggle to contain students’ sexting and cyber bullying

AT six o’clock on a Friday evening, a few hours after classes ended for the day, a schoolteacher logged on to social media and threatened in “numerous messages” to kill a senior colleague.

The incident, which was euphemistically described in an official report as “misuse of technology”, triggered a flurry of reactions including advice for the school to contact police.

“Support and counselling” was provided to the victim of the threats — a head teacher — who had complained to his principal about the frightening attack on a social networking site.

Serious incidents with teachers as perpetrators are rare in the state’s 2200 government schools, but the threat to kill involving staff on the NSW Central Coast spotlights the challenges confronting educators, students and parents with regard to technology.

New data released by the NSW Department of Education shows how schools are struggling to contain incidents of sexting, cyber-bullying and hacking — not just among students but their families and teachers as well.

Schools are the new frontline in the fight against child pornography and the damage caused by sexualised images transmitted online.

Horrifying data shows that 90 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls under 16 have visited a pornographic site.

Researchers have found seven out of 10 Australian girls aged 15 to 19 believe online harassment and bullying is endemic and more than half of girls surveyed say females are pressured into sending “sexy pics” online.

More than 80 per cent of girls believe it is unacceptable for boyfriends to ask for explicit content but they believe pressure to do so is now commonplace.

Chillingly, 15 per cent of teens who send or post nude or semi-nude images of themselves send them to people they have never met, but know from the internet.

Clinical psychologist and child and adolescent behaviour expert Dr Rose Cantali says the “latest fad” of posting pornographic material and using sexually explicit language endangers young people’s futures.

“The use of easily accessible applications has increased and the behaviour of teenagers is therefore chronicled and publicly accessible for years to come,” Dr Cantali says.

“The amount of compromising photos displaying teenagers urinating or performing sexual acts is rising.”

Dr Cantali warns that images will stay online forever and might be seen by future employers or family members as well as their own children.

“It can have extreme effects on mental health.

“We often see isolation following the embarrassment and depression, even suicide as a result of these actions.”

Adolescents also risk ending up on the sex offender list if pictures of underage friends in compromising situations are posted and sent on.

Dr Cantali says: “The legal implications and emotional consequences are extensive.

“The victim’s shame can spiral into a multitude of mental health problems that can reduce future prospects in educational — as well as social — areas.”

“Parents need to foster self-efficacy and resilience in their children to enable them to identify risks and stand up for themselves.

“They also have to be knowledgeable about apps and their children’s use of these applications.”

Other survey findings confirm that a large number of adolescent females are engaging in risky activities online including disclosing personal information, sending personal photos to acquaintances and arranging face-to-face meetings.

Yet when students are asked to characterise their feelings after sending phone pictures, 50 per cent of females and 34 per cent of males feel it is always wrong to forward such pictures.

Parent groups are at the forefront of programs designed to protect children online — and thousands of students now have their phones wired to alert teachers and parents whenever kids look at harmful images.

Cyber expert and mother-of-four Alex Merton-McCann, who works for Intel Security, says: “The lure of social media is strong and almost biological in some teens, so it is inevitable that some kids will absolutely go off task.”

“Many schools do have codes of conduct which students need to sign, however not all do and how is this policed?

“If teachers believe their students would really benefit, perhaps they could agree on a contract.

“Certain conditions such as staying on task and being considerate of others’ privacy would need to be upheld by the students in order for smartphones to be used on a particular project, for example.”

Ms McCann says students need to be constantly educated and reminded about responsible phone usage and schools need to update parents regularly about how technology is used in classrooms.

Latest data collated by the Department of Education shows that the number of sexting and cyber bullying incidents is rising.

School heads notified police of almost 90 cases during the first two terms of 2016.

In 2015 — the first year for which misuse of technology incidents were reported separately by primary and high schools — 152 incidents were recorded of sexting, swapping graphic images, blackmail threats and naked videos used by pupils to degrade each other.

Child behaviour experts warn cyber bullying has reached a critical point and
say the problem is “moving down the stream into primary schools”.

The Department of Education says students are disciplined if they misuse mobile phones and tablet devices.

“Any allegation of student behaviour that may indicate harmful sexualised behaviour is taken seriously,” a spokesman said.

“It is reported to police and child protection services immediately and appropriate support is provided to affected students.”

Department legal bulletins warn transgressors can face criminal or civil action.

Teachers are advised not to invite students into their personal social networking sites and students are told their emails are archived and their web browsing logged with records kept for
two years.

“These records may be used in investigations, court proceedings or for other legal reasons,” a department legal bulletin says.