Dealing with an online situation can be tough, since kids today are often much more at home with technology than the adults to whom they turn for help. To assist parents and families in navigating this unfamiliar terrain, Friendly Schools has compiled some tips and tricks to help you tackle cyberbullying, inappropriate internet usage and other digital dilemmas. Before delving into these specific situations, however, here are our three top suggestions for interacting with your children around digital technology:

  • Ask questions before offering solutions or judging. As parents, we often want to just solve the problem for our children as quickly as possible. Young people told us they want the opportunity to at least try to solve technology problems themselves.
  • Try to stay up to date. It is difficult to keep up to date, especially when there are so many other commitments pulling on your time. The simplest and easiest way to do this is to ask your child what is the latest site they like going to on the internet or how is everyone using their mobiles at the moment? Try to make a time once every few weeks to check out the latest website your child has mentioned and see what it is all about yourself.
  • Remember it’s your space just as much as it is their space. It is important to still play the role of parent, even if your child does know more than you about technology. There are still important lessons you can teach your child and of course the setting of boundaries is of critical importance in this environment.

What is my child actually doing on the internet?

What concerned parent or guardian hasn’t asked themselves this question? Fortunately, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has produced a research report that can help to clear up some of the uncertainty. Entitled ‘Like, post, share: Young Australians’ experience of social media’, the ACMA report draws on surveys conducted with young people across Australia to provide a general overview of technology use among kids and teenagers. You can read or download the entire report here, or click here to see a series of short summaries of the findings and their implications for online safety.

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How can I encourage my child to talk about their experiences online?

Young people – especially teenagers – can be difficult to communicate with at the best of times. A family discussion can be very confronting for your child and may not result in the best outcome for anyone involved. If you try some of the below strategies when chatting with your children, you may find they are more prepared to open up when they feel less scrutinised.

Tips for encouraging communication

  • When kids ‘hang around’, it usually means they have something they need to tell you. Be patient and approachable.
  • Go for a drive or walk the dog with your child and chat about general things. Show your child that you enjoy talking with them.
  • During the evening meal, ask everyone to share their favourite part of the day, as well as one thing that they hope to achieve tomorrow.
  • Ask questions that require a full sentence answer, like these:
    • What happened today?
    • Who did you play with at lunchtime today?
    • How can we make things better?
  • Ask reflecting questions to check that you have understood what your child is trying to tell you. For example:
    • So you’re saying that …?
    • I guess it sounds like you feel …?
    • Do I have that right?

Tips for talking about technology

  • Sit beside your child while they are on the computer and ask them to explain to you how what they are using works.
  • Have regular ‘family challenge’ events using technology. This will help to develop your digital knowledge as well as encouraging your child to see technology as something in which you can participate together. You may find it interesting to see just how much skill is involved in some of the games children use.
  • For many young people, text messaging is a primary form of communication. While nothing takes the place of a face-to-face conversation, text messaging can help parents open new lines of communication, and it is a non-confrontational way to start conversations about sensitive topics like stress in school or concern about curfews.
  • Consider formulating a family agreement that outlines the rules of technology usage in your household. This will give you common ground to refer back to in the case of problems or disagreements.
  • It’s all about relationships! Just remember to keep talking with your children about their use of technology and what they love about it.

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How do I deal with the language barrier surrounding technology?

Even when your child does talk to you about their use of technology, it can sometimes feel as if like they are speaking a whole new language – one that makes the digital social world seem like an intimidating and potentially incomprehensible environment. To better understand this language, it can be helpful to divide it into two categories: internet slang and technological terminology.

Internet slang

Internet slang is a form of shorthand that is easier to type and faster to send than writing the words in full, meaning that messages can be a lot more direct. It came to prominence with the advent of text messaging, but it has become common in instant messages, emails and social network postings as well. You may already know of terms like LOL (‘laughing out loud’), b4 (‘before’) and BRB (‘be right back’), as these are among the more widely used examples of internet slang. However, there is no doubt that the constantly evolving online world makes it difficult to keep up to date with these terms. To decipher more obscure slang terms, try one of the following links:

Technological terminology

Technology is always being updated, and so are the terms that describe it. That said, it’s important for parents and families to have some grasp of current technological words and definitions, since this will make communication and reporting much easier. The following sites provide a useful guide:

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What is a family agreement and how do we make one?

The internet and other forms of technology are wonderful learning and socialising tools for our children. However, when used inappropriately, they can cause great harm and distress. By being proactive in establishing and recording guidelines for technology use in consultation with your whole family, the risks of harm from technology can be greatly reduced. The resulting document, known as a family agreement, is a great tool because it enables everyone to have their say, ensuring that the rules have been agreed upon by all involved.

When negotiating a family agreement, make sure that your children understand that the purpose is to build a positive relationship between family members. The most effective agreements are those where mutual decisions are made. Remain calm when your children discuss these issues with you, staying solution-focused and asking lots of questions before giving answers. Try to keep your finished agreement as clear, simple, concise and manageable as you possibly can. And finally, consider revisiting your family agreement annually. As your children grow, their interests will change and this will impact on what is important to include in a family agreement.

In terms of what gets covered in the agreement, the most important factors to consider are

  • the amount of time that can be spent online
  • when and how mobile phones can be used 
  • which websites are permissible and which are not
  • what information is allowed to be downloaded, uploaded or shared 
  • consequences for unsafe or unacceptable use of technology

There are some basic agreements that apply to all types of technology, and these need to be discussed first. Request that your child to agree to

  • discuss with a parent or carer if they have received cruel or threatening messages or messages with inappropriate content
  • tell an adult if they stumble across something that is inappropriate or frightening
  • treat others online with respect and do the right thing, just as they would in the world offline

In addition to these fundamental points, here are some further, technology-specific examples demonstrating potential points of agreement:

Using the internet 

  • only access the internet in a shared family location, not in bedrooms
  • treat passwords like toothbrushes and never share them with anyone (except with family, if that is part of your agreement)
  • discuss with you before giving out any personal information or signing up for anything online
  • check with you before downloading or uploading files from YouTube or a file-sharing website
  • abide by an agreed-upon schedule to prevent unlimited online access

Mobile phones

  • keep the phone out of the bedroom after bedtime
  • obtain permission from friends and family members before taking pictures or videos of them with their mobile phone
  • agree upon a basic framework for what is and is not acceptable sharing of images
  • pay a percentage of the bill (depending on age and frequency of use)

Social media

  • only network with people they already know in real life
  • make sure security settings are set to friends-only or private
  • never share personal, identifiable information (such as passwords, addresses, phone numbers or school details)
  • never meet an online-only friend without an adult present
  • show you the images they intend to post onto their social networking site to ensure they are appropriate
  • only use webcams in shared family locations, not in bedrooms
  • ignore junk emails and don’t open files from people they don’t know
  • avoid unmonitored chat rooms

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What should I do to help my child if they are involved in a cyberbullying situation?

How can I help my child if they are being cyberbullied?

  • Listen to your child. Encourage them to talk with you about how they feel, and be as supportive as possible.
  • Remind them that they are not in trouble. Stay calm so that your child does not get more upset, and don’t take away access to technology.
  • Ask your child …
    • what they have done to try to stop the bullying, and what happened as a result
    • what they have seen other students do when they are bullied, and if any of the positive actions are something they have tried or would do
    • how they would like you to help
    • if they have talked to anyone else about this, such as a friend or teacher
    • to show you texts, instant messages, emails or anything else they may have kept
  • Make an appointment for both of you with your child’s school to discuss the problem. Develop a plan to address the bullying in consultation with the school and your child.
  • Follow up with the school and your child at regular intervals to find out how the situation is progressing, and whether any further action is needed.
  • If necessary, report your child’s situation to the relevant authorities. Depending on the nature and severity of the situation, this could include website moderators, mobile or internet service providers, or the police.

How can I help my child if they are cyberbullying others?

Parents are usually shocked and upset to find out their child has been involved in bullying. Don’t panic – it doesn’t mean your child is ‘bad’ or that you have done something to invoke this in your child. It does, however, mean that your child needs your help right now. They need you to listen, love, support and offer suggestions to help them to change their behaviour.

Here are some specific tactics you might try:

  • Discuss with your child how they were feeling when they sent the message (or whatever form the bullying took). Try to understand the situation from your child’s perspective. Ask them how they feel about it now. You might ask questions like the following:
    • Did sending the nasty message make you feel better?
    • Could you have tried to communicate your message or feelings in a friendlier manner?
    • How would you feel if you were being bullied?
  • If your child seems uncertain about why their behaviour is wrong, explain what bullying is and why it is not acceptable. Talk about why it is important not to laugh at anyone being bullied or give the person who is bullying lots of attention, and discuss why they should be conscious of their own behaviour towards other students. Discuss the impact of bullying on others, and try to help them to understand what it is like for the person being bullied. Point out that how you behave towards others reflects upon what kind of person you are yourself.
  • Talk to your child about what they think might help them to stop bullying. Ask them what they have tried and how successful it was. Ask if they want you to offer some suggestions.
  • If your child is being negatively influenced by a friendship group at school, consider encouraging them to join an activity outside of school in order to broaden friendship groups and make a fresh start with other children.
  • To mitigate bullying behaviour in the future,increase your supervision of your child’s use of technology, and be consistent in addressing inappropriate behaviour. Consider formulating a family agreement to establish clear rules and consequences for inappropriate use of technology. Don’t forget to praise your child when they use technology appropriately and don’t engage in negative interactions.
  • Young people who bully others can often be impulsive, insecure, experience identity problems, have higher rates of injury and substance abuse problems and report a lower overall life satisfaction and depression. Furthermore, these students are often at higher risk for self-harming behaviour and future violent behaviour. Clearly, these young people are often experiencing difficulties and are in need of support often as much as those young people who are being bullied.

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What does the law say about cyberbullying?

It is important for parents to have a basic understanding of how Australian law might be applied within a cyber context. The law is very complex, but we have attempted to describe it as simply as possible. Please note that we are not qualified lawyers, and we urge you to seek professional legal advice if your situation warrants it.

When it comes to cyberbullying, our legal system is still playing catch up in many ways, and there are very few civil cases regarding technology and bullying which have gone through the courts to date. There may, however, have been a number of cases that were settled out of court. Civil law courts have no minimum age restrictions in Australia, and decisions are upheld based on the balance of probability. By contrast, criminal law requires proof beyond reasonable doubt for a case to be upheld. In Australia, children from the age of 10 are considered capable of criminal responsibility. Criminal responsibility is present if the court deems the child knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they were committing a wrongful act.

With the exception of one New South Wales statute, which is limited in its application, there are no civil or criminal laws that specifically prohibit bullying – let alone cyberbullying. However, there are a wide range of laws, both criminal (which can lead to imprisonment, fine or other punishment) and civil (which can lead to compensation being awarded), that may apply to behaviour that constitutes cyberbullying. In this way, a person who cyberbullies others may commit a criminal offence like assault, misuse of telecommunication services, stalking, vilification or even, in some jurisdictions, torture. They may also be liable to pay compensation in a civil suit on grounds such as assault, vilification, defamation, breach of confidence or invasion of privacy.

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How do I report cyberbullying or other inappropriate online content?

First things first – save the evidence! If you intend to report the situation, it is important to keep screenshots, printouts or other evidence of nasty messages as proof of cyberbullying. Make sure your children also understand the importance of having evidence when they seek help.

Once you have amassed your evidence, the procedure for reporting an instance of cyberbullying will depend on the nature, duration and severity of the situation. For a PDF fact sheet containing information on reporting cyberbullying in a range of different contexts, click on the link below.

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Where can I go to get advice about a cyberbullying situation?

If you or your child needs to talk to someone right now, here are some places you can call:

  • Kids Helpline
    1800 55 1800
    Kids Helpline offers 24-hour counselling services for young people aged 5–25 years. Counselling is available by phone (free call from a landline), email and over the internet.

  • Lifeline
    13 11 14
    Lifeline provides 24-hour counselling services and crisis support over the phone. Calls from a landline are the same cost as a local call, while calls from a mobile are free.

  • beyondblue
    1300 22 4636
    beyondblue is an organisation aimed at helping Australians of all ages deal with anxiety, depression and related conditions. Support is available over the phone (24/7) or via web chat (between 3 pm and 12 am daily). beyondblue also runs a website specifically for young people, youthbeyondblue, which contains information about cyberbullying as well as many other issues relevant to children and teens.

In addition, we recommend the following sites and contacts for help and advice around cyberbullying, as well as other youth issues:

  • Cybersmart
    Cybersmart is a government-run website designed to educate children, young people, parents, teachers and library staff about safe and productive use of the internet.

  • Headspace
    A project of the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, Headspace provides a comprehensive website and one-stop-shop mental health services that are youth-specific.

  • ReachOut
    ReachOut is an online service that aims to inspire young people to help themselves through tough times. They offer specific advice on cyberbullying here.

  • Some counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists are specifically trained to deal with young people. For information on practitioners in your local area, call the beyondblue helpline on 1300 22 4636. Your local doctor (GP) can also provide information about and referrals to youth-friendly mental health and wellbeing services.

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Friendly Schools acknowledges the Public Education Endowment Trust (PEET), who provided funding for the Cyber Strong Schools research project on which the Cyberbullying Support section of this website is based.