Internet usage has significantly increased during the COVID-19 crisis. This has been coupled with a rise in cyber bullying, phishing scams, conspiracies and misinformation. However, despite the risks, it’s never been more important to stay virtually connected. So what can we do to protect ourselves and others online, as we spend more time online while social distancing?
Below we look at the current risks of engaging online, as well as ways to help others (particularly young people) combat these and stay safe online.
There are plenty of positive reasons to stay connected over the web. For one thing, it’s the best way to keep up to date with all relevant, trustworthy sources of information. It’s also proved vital in continuing school and work during this crisis, and has enabled us to keep up important social connection with friends and family.
With kids spending so much time communicating via digital means, issues are bound to arise. Outside of the more structured school environment, it can be harder to address things immediately, and get support. This has seen a concerning 40% rise in reports to the e-safety commissioner Re: online abuse. It’s important to address this immediately, as bullying can have serious long term mental health impacts, including the potential for depression and self-harm.
Ensure you encourage younger family members (or even friends – bullying is not restricted to children and adolescents) to come straight to you as soon as any issues arise, and help them address it. If abuse occurs on a learning platform during a lesson delivered by an educational institution (such as a school or university) report it to them straight away. If you see threats or worrying content through a social media platform, and it has potential to harm others, you should report it to the platform’s moderators. For serious incidents you should also report it to the e-safety commissioner.
You should also encourage people to set up their accounts to avoid unwanted contacts. Make sure they have strong passwords and settings and, in the case of children and adolescents in your care, ensure that you have read the privacy policies of the sites and apps they regularly access. Check what they are posting, and screen shot any bullying or unwanted contacts. Unicef has also released some information about protecting children and adolescents online during COVID 19.
Since 10 March 2020 the Australian Cyber Security Centre has received more than 95 cybercrime reports about Australians losing money or personal information to COVID-19 themed scams and online frauds. If someone asks you for information or money, make sure you check any email or phone request via the organisation’s website, and ask to call them back so you can verify the source. Ensure you have installed a firewall and anti-virus software and, if you detect any unusual log–ins or account breeches, update your passwords immediately. Set your family’s accounts to the highest security settings. This is particularly important during this crisis, as many of us are all hastily subscribing to platforms we haven’t used before. The e-safety commissioner has a lot of information on how to spot scams and what to do it when you come across one.
As people look for answers to keep them and their families’ safe during this crisis, we have seen the spread of false or misleading information and conspiracy theories and because this is new territory, it’s even harder to recognise and verify the truth of the information we receive.
Help others source content that is trusted- not just by you, but by independent sources. Investigate the articles and the tone of the content, and read the comments of people who post on these sites, and try to limit media exposure to key trustworthy sources that are backed by clear evidence. Sources such as the World Health Organisation are a good place to fact check anything you read or hear about the virus, but ensure you check regularly as what we know is changing all the time. ABC News also has a Fact Check platform run by RMIT, which helps determine the accuracy of claims by politicians, public figures, and advocacy groups. Encourage others to think critically, and demonstrate the need to examine opinions and ideas, and where they come from.
The current crisis has seen a seen surge in hate speech, racism, and hate based violence. Extremist groups have also been looking to exploit current fears and insecurities by promoting false claims and participating in an “Infodemic” of conspiracy theories about the virus. You can help others to counter hate speech online, as long as they avoid putting themselves in any danger. If you are concerned that someone you care has begun engaging with extremist content, you should aim to create a safe environment where people feel free to talk, and ask questions. Examine why the content appealed to them in the first place – perhaps there is a social health need or any underlying worry that you can help them address. Encourage them to think critically, and discuss any content they may have seen. Remember also to call the National Security Hotline or law enforcement if the content has made you aware of any immediate risk to yours or others safety.
The most important way to keep yourself and others safe online is to establish and maintain open conversations with those in your life about their (and your) online behavior and interests. Model the behaviour you want to see in others, especially children and teenagers, check in on people, and talk through your concerns with a friend or helpline support worker, who can advise you on practical ways you can help those you are concerned about.
If you need advice on how best to help someone you care about, call our Step Together helpline workers on 1800 875 204, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.