It is a "cop-out" for parents to say they don't understand technology when dealing with cyber bullying, an Australian online safety expert says.

Susan McLean - who is known as 'cyber cop' and has been researching the issue for 24 years - says parents have a responsibility to monitor what devices their children use and their activity on them.

"Most do a great job, but it is a cop out to say they don't understand technology; it is here to stay and I believe they need to bring themselves up to speed."

McLean's comments come as new surveys show almost half of all people aged 18 to 19 and more than a third of those between 11 and 18 have been victims of online harassment.


A former police officer and online safety advisor to Facebook, McLean is considered Australia's foremost expert on the subject for young people. She was in New Zealand last month presenting a series of lectures to students, parents and staff at ACG Tauranga, one of five independent schools run by ACG Education.

Although cyber bullying is not a problem at the school, the lectures are among measures ACG is adopting both to prepare students to face and understand the risks of being online and to ensure they do not fall victim.

ACG Tauranga principal Shawn Hutchinson says school programmes focus on positive behaviour in the use of technology: "We aim to equip our students with the skills and strategies to be responsible digital citizens."

McLean says cyber bullying – which can range from unwanted conflict, trolling, character assassination, sexual harassment or threats of physical violence – is occurring at younger ages than ever before.

"I'm seeing it occurring with children as young as eight, so it is no longer just a teen issue," she says. "This makes it even more imperative it is faced up to not just by schools but parents and other groups in the community.

"Cyber bullying absolutely and categorically can lead to low self-esteem and poor mental health in children which in turn can create conditions for suicide. We need to be teaching our kids kindness online just like we do in the real world.

"We must work together to make sure young people receive consistent messages from all areas of their lives such as school, home, sport, dance, drama and other activities," she says. "But schools are important because they are a hub in the community and ideally placed to set an example."

McLean says although she finds some schools "cannot be bothered" dealing with the issue, ACG is one "switched on" to the problem and is prepared to do something about it.


She says there are a number of ways students can stay safe online including not responding to rude or harassing emails, immediately exiting any site that makes them feel uncomfortable or worried, deleting an email account and starting a new one if harassment continues and keeping devices in a common area of the house, not the bedroom.

In Australia she has also gone as far as calling for a ban on personal mobile phones during the school day.

"Students cannot communicate or learn effectively while using them," she says. "Although learning to work with technology is essential, phones can be a distraction from lessons and a platform for bullying unless schools have the right policies in place."

Hutchinson says while some schools may need a ban imposed on phones, ACG does not believe it is necessary and is tackling the issue in other ways.

Students are required to keep phones in their bags or lockers during school hours.

"We also stipulate that morning and lunch breaks are device free, both to limit the opportunity for negative behaviour but also because we think they should be out in the fresh air developing relationships with each other during those times."

He says the school also runs tutor programmes (which look at and manage issues around cyber bullying) and use outside experts like McLean and the Parenting Place (which runs workshops for parents and students).

Cyber bullying is on the increase in New Zealand. As well as the findings for all 18 and 19 year-olds, a recent New Zealand Attitudes and Values survey found online harassment of women at these ages is even higher, sitting at three in five (60 per cent).

The survey, which was published last year, asked 15,000 people if they had been hurt or embarrassed by someone using a mobile phone, the internet or a digital camera. It also showed one in 10 people aged between 30 and 59 have been affected.

Another study by the Otago-based anti-bullying group Sticks 'n' Stones surveyed 750 children aged 11 to 18 and found 255 or 34 per cent had experienced cyber bullying while 87 per cent of them said it is a serious issues.