Take out a contract on your kid’s phone – literally
For Australian kids today, it’s not a case of if they’ll experience online bullying. It’s a case of when.
That’s not alarmist fear-mongering. It’s the highly informed opinion of experts like Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant and acclaimed cyber expert and clinical psychologist Jordan Foster of ySafe.
One in five Australian children were cyberbullied last year, and official figures show the pace of problem is accelerating fast. So is the panic.
The state of our nation
The shocking death of Amy “Dolly” Everett raised alarms across the nation this year, in schools, among parents, and across the political spectrum. The 14-year-old Northern Territory schoolgirl took her own life after relentless bullying on social media.
In the wake of the tragedy, today’s National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence has taken on unprecedented urgency.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has contacted every school principal in Australia in a call for united action to combat the problem at the school level. And his government has put money where its mouth is, with a $1.3 million injection to support today’s Day of Action.
COAG will tackle the issue at its March meeting, thanks to a move by Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszdzuk that gained instant bi-partisan support.
A Senate committee is currently considering the adequacy of our nation’s criminal laws around cyberbullying. Meanwhile calls to ban smartphones in Australian schools are provoking widespread debate, as rates of homeschooling have reportedly spiked.
But where do I begin?
A social media safety specialist, 28-year-old Jordan Foster can relate to both sides of the equation: the teens who see social media as their lifeline, and the mums and dads who are increasingly frantic to protect them from online abuse.
Foster speaks to parent and school groups across Australia every week. “But where do I begin?” is the most common question she gets asked.
Her answer? A digital contract – a formal written agreement, with terms and conditions set by parents, to be signed by kids before taking their first swipe on a personal device.
“The digital contract is the best first step a parent can take. I’ve seen it in action time and again. Establishing a contract kickstarts that tough family conversation that most mums and dads know they should have with their kids, but may feel out of their depth to initiate.
“I’m not saying a digital contract is a magic bullet – cyberbullying is a very complex problem, it demands a complex set of responses. But I know for certain it’s a practical step that parents can take right now – and it will help enormously.”
No contract, no connection
“Congratulations! You’ve got a new phone! Before it’s yours, you need to agree to some ground rules: Remember this phone is only on loan to you. It is a privilege which can and will be taken away if you don’t follow this contract.”
In partnership with Family Zone Cyber Safety, Foster has created a digital contract for use by parents, which opens with these words. It goes on to spell out in clear language the Do’s and Dont’s the child must agree to, including things like providing passwords to parents, abstaining from use during mealtimes and answering promptly if a parent calls or texts.
Foster also recommends that parents sign an undertaking, vowing to be “firm but fair” when discipline problems arise and to “work through problems and solutions together.”
Kids who are too young to read or understand such a contract shouldn’t have access to a personal device at all, according to Foster.
As for those who refuse to agree to the contract forfeit their rights to the use of the device. Full stop. “No contract, no connection, no exceptions,” says Foster. And it’s for this reason that she advocates parents paying for their child’s plan. (“It gives you tremendous leverage – and most parents never use it.”)
But what about kids who already have a personal device, and have never had any rules around using it? “It’s never too late,” she advises. “Don’t do anything by force. But explain to your child that you made a mistake – that’s a brave thing for a parent to do, I know – and you are now going to correct it.
Make it clear that this is not a punishment, but rather that you are doing what a responsible digital parent has to do.”
And what better day to get the ball rolling than the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence?