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Cyber Safety for Students these School Holidays

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Summer holidays are kicking off around Australia, which means students will have more free time to play and have fun in the sun. 

But school holidays can be a difficult time for some kids. Changes to routine and being away from their usual school supports can cause them to feel stressed, down or lonely. Holidays can be a particularly vulnerable time for students whose families are struggling with grief, loss, poverty or family violence.

School holidays also mean more time spent online.

Social media helps kids stay connected with their peers during the break. And when used mindfully, it can help to combat isolation. It allows them to share holiday photos with their friends and maintain important bonds over the break. A recent Australian survey found that 50.6% of adolescents reported feeling connected to others when using their phones, and 44% said they find it easier to interact with people online than face-to-face [1].

But social media can have a negative impact on self-esteem, with almost 2 out of 3 teens feeling pressure to look good on social media, and nearly half feeling bad about themselves when their friends don't like or share their posts [1].

Peer group issues can escalate more quickly in the online space. When kids are on holidays there may be less opportunity to resolve situations face-to-face,  and small problems can become a big deal. This may lead to rumination, which can have a negative impact on mental health [2].

Cyber safety is an issue during school holidays

Importantly, the risk of cyberbullying may increase during the holiday period. Kids may have more interactions with their peers online, potentially with less supervision. According to Australian Primary Principals Association president Dennis Yarrington, students often engage in more cyberbullying during holidays, as they don't have to face the consequences of their behaviour at school the next day. Online disinhibition effects and perceived anonymity may be amplified - that is, students may be more likely to do things online that they would not do face-to-face [3]. For example, we know that young people who perceive themselves to be more anonymous online are more likely to cyberbully others [4].

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Targets of cyberbullying may also be more vulnerable at this time, with less support from teachers and peers. Cyberbullying can make it hard for kids to return to school after the holidays, and they may feel anxious or withdrawn in the lead-up to the new school term.

So how can we support them?

According to headspace, parental support is crucial during the holiday period. Below are some tips for parents, to help keep their kids happy and well over the holidays, and deal with issues around technology use and cyberbullying.

1. Encourage them to stay connected

Social media will be one of the main ways that kids stay connected to friends during the holidays. However, it is important to also plan face-to-face interactions with friends, and connect with the broader community through activities such as sports, classes, clubs or volunteering. Creative activities such as holiday drama, music or art workshops can be a great way to meet new people. 

Staying connected with family is key to ensuring students feel supported during the holidays. Not all families can go away for the holidays, and many parents still need to work, but it is important to plan regular family activities, even if this is as simple as kicking a ball around at the park or sharing a family dinner each night. If kids are struggling with loneliness and isolation, organisations such as headspace and ReachOut.com provide good online resources and support. 

2. Maintain healthy activities

Encourage young people to stay active during the holidays to manage mood and physical health. If they are feeling withdrawn, sad or anxious, even small activities like walking the dog around the block can make a big difference. Encourage them to find activities that they enjoy, especially those that have a social element such as team sports or going to the beach with friends. 

It can also be hard for kids to maintain good eating habits without the structure of school. A balanced diet of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lots of water will help them with sleep, and improve energy levels, concentration and emotional wellbeing.  

3. Create a routine

Encourage kids to maintain a routine during the holidays, including going to sleep and waking at the same time, eating three meals a day, and planning activities in advance. Giving them responsibilities at home can provide structure and boost motivation. Planning a project for the holidays, such as redecorating their bedroom or building a vege garden, can help to keep them engaged.

4. Check in with yourself

It can be easy for parents to become overwhelmed with the stress of the holiday season. Self-care for parents is therefore really important. Not only does it help you enjoy your holidays, but also puts you in a better position to support your kids and be mindful of how they are feeling during a potentially vulnerable time. Self-care is different for everyone, and could mean going for a swim, reading a book, or scheduling an appointment with your GP.

5. Open up communication

Head of Direct Clinical Services at headspace, Vikki Ryall, says the school holidays provide a good opportunity for parents to tune into their child's emotions and discuss issues that may have gone under the radar during the school term. These may include mental health, drugs and alcohol, relationships or cyberbullying. The most important thing is to listen to how your child is feeling, respond with empathy, and work with them to come to a solution or access professional support if needed. Remember that not all problems need to be fixed, and just knowing they've been heard can make a big difference.

6. Discuss Internet safety

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According to Childnet International, the holidays are a good time to sit down with your kids and have positive conversations about technology use. Look at their favourite sites and apps with them, and be curious about their experience. Ask them what they are concerned about, and how they manage privacy and security settings on each platform. Discuss cyberbullying - what it looks like and how to manage it if it occurs. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner has practical information about what to do if you experience online abuse. They also provide information about strategies to manage web-connected devices in the home, including parental controls and safe search settings. 

Decide together what is safe and appropriate to share online (for both kids and parents!) Discuss screen time in a collaborative and realistic way. Make a family agreement that includes positive statements about how each family member will use technology, and make a plan for staying safe online. 

7. Prepare them to go back

Listen to how your kids feel about going back to school. Students who struggle with social anxiety may find this transition particularly difficult. Discuss an action plan for their first week, particularly if cyberbullying or friendship problems have arisen during the holidays. This may involve calling a friend they trust to support them on the first day. The Diana Award's Back2School Campaign in the UK has some good advice for kids who are worried about returning to school after the break. 

Connecting with students through theatre productions for schools

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Theatre in education is a great starting point for these conversations.  

School theatre companies like Brainstorm Productions provide cyber safety education that is creative and engaging. In the high school performance Cyberia, two siblings are dealing with stressful events at home. Over the school holidays Ruby shares information on social media that divides her friendship group, and eventually leads to cyberbullying and her personal information going viral. Tim struggles with social isolation, immersing himself in online gaming, interacting with strangers, and finding himself involved in an online scam. Tim and Ruby learn how to reach out to others, look after their mental health, make amends, and deal with the consequences of their actions when they return to school. 

Over the holidays Brainstorm will be preparing for a new school year - finalising metropolitan and regional tours, rehearsing new teams of actors, and polishing their bullying, cyber safety and resilience programs for schools.

Brainstorm is looking forward to being part of the school community's efforts to keep kids safe and well, in 2018 and beyond. 

Happy holidays!

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References

[1] Australian Psychological Society (2017). Digital Me: A survey exploring the effect of social media and digital technology on Australian's wellbeing. 

[2] Michl, L.C., McLaughlin, K.A., Shepherd, K., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: Longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 339-352.

[3] Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyber Psychology and Behavior, 7, 321-326.

[4] Bartlett, C.B., Gentile, D.A., & Chew, C. (2016). Predicting cyberbullying from anonymity. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, 171-180.

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Guest Tuesday, 12 December 2017

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