Fighting for a respectful (online) society

Teenage girl victim of bullying by text messages 

A recent incident involving students from St Peter’s College in South Australia has caused us to once again question whether the values of respect, empathy and consent are being imparted to our younger generation.

These students now face criminal charges after reportedly filming and sharing humiliating, sexually explicit material during a private party. This practice is what we term image-based abuse—the antithesis of consent, empathy and respect.

While the popular media often covers the most egregious cases, this malicious practice is becoming rampant in our society. Research findings released recently reveal that 1 in 5 Australians have experienced image-based abuse. This is up from 1 in 10 Australians just two years ago.

The eSafety Office has been given national responsibility for tackling insidious online abuse. This includes developing a national online portal and reporting tool to help Australians access tangible support when intimate images or videos are shared without their consent.  This will be rolled out in the coming months.

The need is urgent and compelling. Already this year, my Office has received more than 400 reports of image-based abuse through our inquiries hotline.

We know from testimonials that image-based abuse victims often feel betrayed, violated and powerless. Their images can spread like wildfire—on popular social media sites, via text or messaging apps and on websites that thrive from hosting this type of material—where images of predominantly young women are collected and traded like footy cards. 

For victims, it is not only the immediate hurt of this betrayal that is most concerning – it is that feeling of devastation and angst that never goes away. With image-based abuse, the targets don’t know how widely their images have been viewed and where and when they will reappear in the future.

The disturbing behaviour we see playing out online reminds us we are living in a very different time. Young people today have been exposed to far more graphic, sexualised and violent content in advertising, mainstream media and online than earlier generations ever were.  This generation is taking sexualised media to a new level with their perfectly curated revealing selfies on Instagram and through the sharing of their supposedly temporary nudes over Snapchat.

Our challenge is to ensure that our enduring values of consent, respect and empathy are not extinguished from modern day human interaction online.

Parents have an important role to play in imparting these core values to their children and to staying engaged in both their online and offline lives.  Modelling positive behaviour with our own technology use is paramount, as well as letting our kids know we will be there for them if something does go wrong online.

The education system is the secondary line of defense. We need to do a better job at consistently teaching online safety and respectful relationships education.  At the school level, we need to work at stamping out all forms of technology-facilitated abuse and build that culture of mutual respect.  In short, the old boys need to teach the young boys new thinking around online respect and we need to reinforce that the mean girls who bully others are not the queen bees in the female student hierarchy.

Across genders, this culture of incivility is not only evident in the actions of those taking and spreading this material, but also in the passive inaction of onlookers and bystanders. While they may not be taking the images, they are enabling this practice by either on-sharing or not standing up against the abuse. Calling it out, speaking up, and letting parents and teachers know when something rude, ugly and harmful is going on, goes a long way in dissolving a culture of bullying and harassment.

Young people can also become part of the solution by understanding that seeking help in a time of online crisis is a sign of strength, not weakness. By telling a trusted adult, by reporting online abuse to the eSafety Office or speaking to a support service like Kids Helpline, a young person is a step closer to finding relief from the abuse. 

Ultimately, young people need to better understand the consequences of their online actions. What might seem like a bit of a laugh or the online boasting of a sexual conquest can have seriously devastating outcomes for not only the target of abuse, but across the social fabric of the school or community. Those who perpetuate image-based abuse are also at-risk of criminal sanction. 
We all have a responsibility to help shape the future citizens and leaders of tomorrow.  Part of this is ensuring that universally shared values like respect are constantly reinforced in every aspect of their lives—online and offline.

For Australians experiencing any form of online abuse, including cyberbullying, image-based abuse or child online exploitation (if a person under the age of 18 experiences image-based abuse, or was under 18 at the time the image was taken), they can report it to the eSafety Office at www.esafety.gov.au.

A version of this op-ed was originally published in The Australian.


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