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Unsupervised chill time on the lounge in front of ‘the box’ playing games on the Commodore 64 or watching ABC’s educational Play School was the go-to for many generations of Aussie youngsters. Television is being superseded by a plethora of alternative smart technology giving seemingly unlimited reach and connection across the Globe.

Screen time is now mobile, enjoyed anywhere on demand at any time, via phone, tablet, console or computer. Streaming or app options in turn have links to other online and third-party activities and these, along with the invisible community of social media, are entrusted for communication, entertainment and education of toddlers, children and teens, both at home and school.

In exchange for some peace and down time, carers may offer their devices to children to watch their favourite show, forgetting the notifications and advertisements popping onto the screen during their viewing from various apps and messaging platforms. With only one click, a child’s exposure to information and content is only limited by their own curiosity. Restricting a child to age appropriate or censored content and material can seem overwhelmingly daunting for those who haven’t grown up with daily navigation of the net.

To the rescue for students, parents, teachers and school administrators through to corporations and government agencies is Paul Litherland — a real life and online hero, and an active and ongoing advocate for internet awareness and cyber safety. Paul was recently awarded 2022 WA Australian of the Year and is in the running for the national accolade of Australian of the Year this upcoming Australia Day.

Paul recognised the risk to young people of online bullies, randoms, scammers and predators while working as a WA Police Officer for 20 years. The latter quarter of his career was spent in the Technology Crime Investigation Unit providing him with a wealth of knowledge and front-line experience to share.
Surf Online Safe was established by Paul around a decade ago and last month, the highly sought-after presenter delivered a number of engaging eye-opening workshops, using a healthy mix of scare tactics and good humour, to local students, teachers and parents at Immaculate Heart College (IHC) in Lower Chittering.

Paul has presented to hundreds of thousands of students and parents across WA and said, “I have recorded extensive notes and gathered statistics during all sessions in regard to specific questions asked of my target audience.”

In some places during COVID, online networks have sadly been the only contact students have had with each other, teachers and family, and also the only option to make new friends. Shockingly, of the youngest group surveyed (9 to 11 years) over half are on one or more of the Top 10 Social Networking Apps, a significant increase to the 17 per cent he recorded in 2014.

Paul’s research has revealed only 6% of under 18’s are using Facebook, in contrast to 65% (Primary) to 90% (Secondary) students using Instagram, and 47% (Primary) to 90% (Secondary) of students using Snapchat. He identified a lack of risk assessment by young users and said, “Many also do not realise the capabilities and ‘other’ aspects of the apps they are using.” As an example, he found half of Snapchat users were not using or were unaware of the ‘Ghost Mode’ option. ‘Snap Map’ allows ‘snapchatters’ to watch snaps submitted from all across the world and if not manually set to off, the user’s identity location may be seen by others. Furthermore, Paul said, “ It is the primary app used by teens to send inappropriate images or bullying content.” Messages vanish from records once read, although they may be permanently captured via screenshot.

His findings also show 80% of Year 5 to Year 10 students use TikTok. “Many predators will trawl the network to interact with young girls who have non-private accounts in the hope of becoming ‘TikTok Famous’ by gaining massive followers, thus accepting contact from ‘randoms’,” said Paul. The good news is the App does offer a Parental Control option.

In addition, there are pros and cons of other media including YouTube, What’s App, Discord and Reddit. Paul described how Discord is popular with gamers, not moderated and well known for its inappropriate language and content while Reddit is a primary source for adult content for males, being harder to identify and trace by parents.

The majority of parents at IHC were unaware of Omegle, a video chat service used by a large number for sexual contact with other camera users. Paul demonstrated how it is popular with predators and scammers, both male and female, for ‘sextortion’, enticing on-cam nudity and other sexual behaviour which is then recorded and used to elicit further content or blackmail for financial gain.
According to Paul, “The top 6 online games currently in Australia, based on log-ins per month, are Among Us, Minecraft, Roblox, Apex Legends, Fortnite and League of Legends. Players can make in game purchases of currency (27% of kids under the age of 15 have access to a credit card), are exposed to fake third-party websites promising free content, and 88% interact and play with randoms (compared to 8% in 2005). He recommends, “Only making purchases through registered accounts directly through the game’s home site and using safe and approved private rooms are a must!”

The massive amount of content and users on social networking makes it impossible for providers to moderate effectively or review all reporting. The Esafety Commission website (www.esafety.gov.au) is a civil reporting option and can be used to request removal of content (bullying and intimate images). The Australian Crime Online Reporting Network website (www.acorn.gov.au) provides a police reporting option for criminal matters.

What is seen cannot be unseen and Paul offers many tips for parents, including the use of, “Software and hardware-based control and monitoring options for families within the home or on children’s mobile devices outside of school.” Parental control options are available via the home internet connection and modem pertaining to accessibility, web filtering, time scheduling and use of ‘packet sniffers’ (to identify modem passwords to get around restriction settings).

Among his other achievements, Paul had a hand in developing a great resource for parents: the free Beacon Cyber Safety App by the Telethon Kids Institute.

For further information or to book Paul for your group or school, go to www.surfonlinesafe.com.au. There you will also find testimonials from a range of people as to the quality of teaching, positive impact on young lives and families and the ability of Paul’s presentations to spark an open dialogue around staying safe online.