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The Schoolies problem that doesn’t make the headlines

So far, Schoolies 2017 has gone pretty much to script judging by the headlines: ‘Schoolies trash hotel room, post gloating video’, ‘Police arrest 18-year-old toolie’, ‘Queensland schoolies pack their bags after well-behaved week’, ‘Bali volcano erupts stranding schoolies’.

Reflecting these headlines, the official Schoolies website talks about the physical safety measures that have been put in place, including wrist bands, photo identification protocols, and police and emergency contact details.

However, there is no mention of sexting or revenge porn (also called image-based abuse) on the site, which Deakin University Professor of Cyber Security Matthew Warren believes is a real issue. (The site does link to the Queensland government web page, which has an extensive section about ‘privacy and social media’ including warnings on sexting, social media and cyber bullying. It warns posting or emailing sexting images, particularly of those under 18, is a criminal offence.)

Prof. Warren believes a cyber safety warning should be more prominent during the Australian rite of passage that is Schoolies. What you do see about Schoolies, he explains, is a lot of information about public and physical safety (including the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and the danger of toolies) but not necessarily information about some of the cyber safety issues.

‘It is an issue for a younger demographic, especially around Schoolies – they’re out, they’ve finished school, they’re having fun, having a drink, they’re with their friends the last thing they are going to think about is what is going to be the consequence of “I shared this photo”,’ Prof. Warren says.

How widespread is the problem?

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), 86% of 14-to-17-year-olds own a mobile phone. And 13% of 16-to-17-year-olds said they or a friend had sent sexually suggestive, nude or semi-nude photos or videos to someone else – sexting.

However, recent research from the federal eSafety Commission found fewer teenagers were sending pictures of themselves than first thought. That study found that in Australia and New Zealand, fewer than one in 20 teenagers send such images of themselves, but 90% think most of their peers do.

Prof. Warren says while there is increasing awareness about sexting and revenge porn, in the environment of Schoolies where inhibitions can be forgotten, pictures could be shared without realising the consequences.‘There is no control over what that person can do if they have a photo of you,’ he says. ‘Once it’s on the internet, it’s always on the internet, they are going to have no control about that information.’

And your digital footprint is nearly impossible to erase, as evidenced by actress and victim of a 2014 nude photo hack Jennifer Lawrence. ‘There’s not one person in the world that is not capable of seeing these intimate photos of me,’ she said, describing the experience as ‘unbelievably violating’.

'There is no control over what that person can do if they have a photo of you ... Once it’s on the internet, it’s always on the internet.'

Professor Matthew Warren,
Deakin University

Actions and consequences

Prof. Warren says young people should be more aware of their actions, as the impact of sexting – and in more extreme examples, revenge porn – is profound, long lasting and has serious legal implications.

What may seem fun at the time may come back to haunt five years down the track when people are in a professional position, he says, not to mention the damage to reputation, self-esteem, the potential for cyber bullying and depression.

In the case of revenge porn, people use images that are obtained either with or without consent, to leverage a financial gain or in some cases blackmail victims for money. And due to the nature of the offence, people are less willing to talk about it.

Prof. Warren draws parallels between revenge porn and cyber bullying at schools – where young people will take pictures of other young people and then share it with a group of individuals as a form of bullying and humiliation for the person concerned.

‘Revenge porn is a form of cyber-attack,’ he says, ‘and with any cyber-attack there is always a motivation behind the attack.’

In November, the eSafety Commission announced Australia was part of a global trial working with Facebook to try and stop intimate images being posted on Facebook and Instagram. But that move has raised concerns, users worried about image-based abuse are asked to send an intimate image of themselves as a preventative measure.

Use protection

There are some simple steps young people can take to try and prevent sexting or image-based abuse, including looking out for friends, deleting images if they receive them, and asking questions such as ‘what would my parents think if they saw that image?’.

Technology can also be a safeguard, Prof. Warren says, urging caution with security issues related to connecting with public Wifi and suggesting apps that can query whether you want to share images particularly in a Schoolies environment where people may lose their sense of judgement and may not realise the consequences.

‘When we talk about a respect campaign it really does tie in with the cyber aspects as well as the physical aspects,’ he says.

Study cyber security at Deakin to see how you can improve the online safety of others. 

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Professor Matthew Warren
Professor Matthew Warren

Professor of Cyber Security, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University

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