Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading

11:23 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | Hansard source

I would like to make some comments in relation to the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014 and the related bill.

I would have to say that I concur with the majority of comments I have heard this morning in the chamber in this debate. I think it is important that we acknowledge the two committees that have looked into this issue over the last couple of years. I would particularly like to acknowledge the contribution that Senator Catryna Bilyk, of my home state of Tasmania, has made not only in relation to this issue but to issues generally relating to the welfare of children.

More and more these days people have become interconnected through social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter now mean that we are able to create an online profile for ourselves and to stay connected to virtually anybody anywhere in the world and at any time. We can share stories, photos, memories and dreams, holidays, weddings, barbecues and birthdays. It has enhanced and transformed our lives. The world as we know it will never be the same again. In my area of responsibility, aged care, I see that the internet and the advancements that we have made in technology will be another step in ensuring that people do not become isolated in their own homes.

But getting back to the presence, unfortunately, of cyberbullying: with all the benefits we talk about from the internet and having access 24/7, the dark side of social media is why this bill has been brought before us. It is a very dark side of the internet and I do not think there is anyone in this chamber or anyone who would be listening who would not know someone who actually has been bullied or who has had to deal with the consequences of online bullying. We know that bullying has been around in our society. I can remember at school, where I think a lot of us—for whatever reason—from time to time experienced bullying. I think Senator Bernardi was talking about whether you were too tall, whether it was the colour of your hair or whether, like me, you had freckles. I had the name of 'Polley' so you can imagine how often I got tormented about the name of Polley. Then, when I actually got into politics it all started all over again!

But society is changed in the sense that during our days in the school yard, when you went home you had some freedom. In those days, when I was in primary school, you had that respite because we did not even have a telephone. Therefore, children were able to go home, turn on their television, do their homework and relax, and then, hopefully, the next day when they went back those bullies had moved on to someone else. But now, unfortunately, young people are exposed to it 24 hours a day.

One of the issues that we need to consider as parents, guardians and grandparents is where children use their computers. When you have a computer that is connected to the internet, I am a great believer that it should be in a family room where parents and carers can supervise the use of the internet. It can be so easy for young people—or even for us adults—to go onto a site that is inappropriate accidentally.

In being able to be contacted 24 hours a day, with all the benefits that brings by keeping us connected around the world, even us adults have trouble at times in keeping up with the technology. Therefore, it is more difficult for parents to always know what their young people are being exposed to. Only too often, the issue around bullying does not come to light within a family until it has escalated to a level where it is obvious that there is something going on with your daughter or your son.

We need to be able to ensure that the issues around this are legislated for as much as possible. But I have to say from my time on other committees and in having dealings with the AFP and other agencies that it is not always easy for those people who have to supervise the internet; how it can be used for grooming young boys and young girls and the issues around adults forming relationships with a parent so that they can have access to their children—all these sorts of issues. Unfortunately, too much of this sort of behaviour is conducted through the internet. Not only are those children potentially the ones who are going to be hurt but their families can be destroyed. We know that there is never going to be enough money; it seems to be that whatever happens in the community, that those who are in our community and who are less desirable seem to have access to more money and more technology than the good guys in our agencies do.

The forms of bullying that children may be exposed to can relate to their appearance, but it can also be dissemination of photos which have been taken of them and which are unflattering. These can cause all sorts of negative thoughts. As we know, there are too many young people now being diagnosed with depression. We also know that young people suffer from various eating disorders, and it all comes down to the issue of the image—the self-esteem and self-confidence that young people need to have—and their resilience, to be able to ensure that they do not succumb to these bullying attacks on them.

We also know of and I think have all experienced fake Facebook pages set up in people's names. I know there are politicians who have experienced that, and obviously there are young people. We know through the debate today that there have been a lot of stories told about the personal experiences of some of our young people. But I think this is a good step. I think it is only one more step that we have to take to ensure that we have some control and that there is legislation here to protect young people from this sort of attack and the use of the internet to bully young people. We all know about self-esteem and the way young people and all of us as individuals see ourselves is greatly impacted by our peers and the social settings that you are involved in.

According to Reachout, one of Australia's main organisations that helps children that are victims of bullying, it can lead to feelings of being the one at fault. Only too often comments are made—and I am sure they are not made intentionally—like: 'Why go on social media? Why'd you visit that site?' It is not always that easy. We know this can lead to feelings of hopelessness and humiliation. It can lead to feelings of being alone and vulnerable. It can lead to feelings of depression and rejection. It can lead to feelings of being unsafe and afraid. It can also lead to stress disorders. Those are really some of the most serious aspects of bullying in general but particularly when we are talking about cyberbullying.

This can have a profound effect on the mental health of children and may lead to all sorts of problems later in life. The Australian Department of Communications commissioned the Social Policy research Centre at the University of New South Wales. According to the research, one in five Australian children between the ages of 10 and 17 have experienced some sort of cyberbullying. This amounts to approximately 463,000 victims, of whom around 365,000 are in the peak age of 10-15 years. Those of us who have had children going through that age know it can be challenging enough without having to deal with this added consequence of internet bullying. But this estimate could be much higher than that. It is very hard because not all of the instances of cyberbullying are actually brought to the attention of the authorities. So we must obviously be more careful with our children and the sort of exposure to the internet and what it does. It is about communicating with your children. If there is anything on the internet that makes them feel uncomfortable then they should be having those conversations with their parents.

In an age where children are confronted with all sorts of stereotypes, this level of public humiliation is unacceptable. This is why it is so important to tackle this problem head on and regulate the ability for others to perpetrate this brand of bullying on our children. Under the leadership of Bill Shorten, to those in the opposition this is not a political issue where there is any great divide in terms of how critically important we see this piece of legislation. As I said, there are some aspects of it that we have some concerns about, but we feel, as I am sure does everyone in this chamber, that this is another good step forward.

But we also have to consider what constitutes in any one person's mind what bullying is, because what bullying can be to one individual can be very different to another. Some people may object to the increase in the regulation of the internet and social media content based on the fact that they feel it intrudes on their liberty and freedom of expression. But rest assured that we in this chamber believe that these steps are necessary. When it comes to questioning whether it is impinging on someone's freedom of expression, I say children must always come first and the safety of our children must be foremost in our minds. But we have been listening to the concerns in the community over a long period of time. As I said, there have been two committees that have crossed over in the area of cyberbullying and the safety of children using the internet. I think this bill is a good step in making sure that we can address as much as we can at this stage some of the issues that are confronting these children.

I turn to the structure of the bill itself. It establishes a children's commissioner and sets out its functions and powers. The child or guardian can complain to the commissioner if they have been a victim of cyberbullying. The bill sets out that social media providers will have to comply with a basic set of online safety requirements. The commissioner can then investigate such complaints. This includes minimum standards in a service provider's terms and conditions of use, a complaints scheme and a dedicated contact person.

The bill creates two tiers of social media services. Tier 1 comprises social media services which have applied to the commissioner to be declared as such. Tier 2 social media service may be issued a social media service notice by the commissioner which requires the removal of such material. The commissioner also has the power to issue notices to end-users who post cyberbullying material. The notices can also include a requirement for them to remove that material. The remedy for non-compliance with such a notice is injunctive relief.

Rest assured, as I said, those of us on this side are always prepared to work with the government and the crossbench when it comes to any legislation that improves the safety of those who are using the internet, particularly when it comes to children. I also take this opportunity to once again stress the importance to parents, guardians and grandparents of ensuring that they have a conversation with their young people in relation to the dangers involved in using the internet. There are those within our community who will use the internet to groom children. You will find all sorts of warnings and assistance are available; I know the schools within our community do as much as they can to ensure that children understand the dangers. But, even with all of this, it is important that you have these conversations at home and that you talk at home about what your children are doing when they are on the internet. If they are being bullied, whether it is via the internet or at school, then those conversations need to be had because the security of our young children is first and foremost. We have to be always mindful of their self-esteem to ensure they have the resilience to deal with cyberbullying or bullying in the schoolyard. I commend the bill and I will have more to say, I am sure, during the committee stage.


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