The 'alarming new normal' in online harm - and how to tackle it

Online harm and abuse were supercharged in 2020 - setting the scene for an “alarming new normal.”

The most recent statistics from the eSafety Commissioner show 2020 was a year like no other - and not in a good way.

Some of the highlights - or, more accurately, the lowlights - include:

  • a 90% increase in illegal online content
  • a 114% increase in non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
  • a 30% increase in serious cyberbullying of children
  • a 40% increase in adult online harassment 

“Sadly, we believe these elevated levels of online harm and abuse represent an alarming new normal,” said eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant.

So how do we protect our kids, and ourselves?

First, says Inman Grant, we need to admit what doesn’t work to keep them safe: namely, fear-based messaging and one-off programs.

Instead, “we need to be regularly reinforcing these important lessons in a positive, pragmatic and non-threatening way, and co-designing our programs with the audiences we are trying to reach.”

Safety by design

Above all, she advocates a preventative approach called “safety by design” as having the best chance for success. It’s an ambitious goal that entails convincing - or compelling - tech companies to put safety at the core of any product they design, develop and deploy, and ultimately reap profits from. 

It’s a standard we expect from other manufacturers, Inman Grant points out. Why should tech companies be exempt?

“When we get into our cars, we almost take for granted that the brakes will work, the seatbelts will be effective and the airbags will deploy when needed.

“We want similar safeguards to become standard in the online world.”

The problem, of course, is that physical harm is tangible and easily documentable, while emotional or psychological harm is not. Holding tech companies responsible for, say, contributing to high rates of depression and anxiety among teens is very different to regulating standards for airbags or emissions.

“When we get into our cars, we almost take for granted that the brakes will work, the seatbelts will be effective and the airbags will deploy when needed.

“We want similar safeguards to become standard in the online world.”

Inman Grant, herself a former tech industry executive, insists “safety by design” is an achievable goal.

“During my tech industry days, we used to call it ‘coopetition’ and while we’ve seen this work with security and privacy, we’re yet to see it applied to online safety.

“It’s time for this to change.”

New legislation and expanded powers

It’s also time for legislation to change, she notes, and the proposed Online Safety Bill 2021 aims to do just that.

Replacing Australia’s two-decades-old content regulation laws, it will include a world-first adult cyber-abuse scheme and expanded regulations around cyberbullying that will now cover games, websites and messaging services in addition to social media.

The new law will also strengthen the Commission’s takedown power to combat child sexual abuse. 

The urgency to enact such measures has never been greater. In fact, says Inman Grant, it’s a case of now or never, given the pace of technological development that could raise threats to truly horrifying heights.

“From decentralised services to end-to-end encryption, online anonymity, new immersive technologies and the rise of deepfakes, we need to anticipate how they might be misused and how we can build safety features in before the genie can squeeze his way out of the bottle.”

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Social Media, cyberbullying, nudes, adult online harassment

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