Chapter 6 Other significant cyber-safety complexities
In addition to the cyber-threats set out in the two previous chapters, a
number of other online concerns were raised in the evidence.
This chapter considers the validity of the term ‘technological-addiction’
and the online promotion of undesirable and/or illegal behaviours and
practices, which may include exposure to violent and sexually violent online
games as well as sites promoting suicide, self harm, anorexia and drug/alcohol
Parents/carers are becoming more aware of the time children spend
online. Addiction to various
forms of technology is seen by some parents/carers as a problem for some of
their adolescents. Gaming is seen as a ‘really big issue’ for many young boys,
for whom it is their social networking site.
For example, a concerned parent wrote about a child who, like some of
his friends, is ‘games obsessed; his behaviour in relation to computer gaming
looks like addictive behaviour.’ They engage virtually via gaming consoles
connected to the Internet. Many of the games are M-rated. The M15 games some
children play, despite their ages, were supplied by their parents. They play
‘for many hours each day’, longer when not at school, and ‘live talk’ takes
place as they play. The well-being of children when they are ‘playing’ together
in such violent environments is a matter for concern.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists stated
that ‘problematic Internet use’ (PIU) was first described in the late 1990s
through case studies and scientific papers. At present, there is no official
recognition of PIU by authorities or psychiatrists in the United States, Europe
or Australia. China and other East Asian countries, who consider it a major
public health concern, recognise it and provide extensive government funds for
research and treatment.
Although it is clear that there are significant impacts on some people,
the College noted active debate about the recognition and classification of
PIU. This included whether it merited inclusion in the forthcoming (2012) Fifth
Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The term ‘technology
addiction’ has negative and derogatory connotations, is scientifically
incorrect and could lead to panic or undue worry. The College recommended that
the term ‘problematic Internet use’ be used in place of ‘technology
addiction(s)’ wherever possible.
Appearing for the Australian Psychological Society, Dr McGrath confirmed
that there is pressure, particularly in Asian journals, for adding ‘technology
addiction’ to the list in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. She did not
believe that it is a different manifestation, and noted that there did not seem
to be any evidence it is widespread.
The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition referred to the promotion and
sensationalising of internet addiction in the media and the lack of clinical
validity. Similarly, the Alannah
and Madeline Foundation noted that, while there is a large commentary on the
subject in the media, there is at present neither sound research evidence nor
convincing theoretical support for such a syndrome:
Although a small number of writers and researchers (the
commentary particularly from writers in China, Taiwan and Korea) claim that
this is an identifiable behavioural syndrome, there is neither sound research
evidence nor convincing theoretical support for such a syndrome at this time.
It has been suggested that ‘internet addiction’ is a term that has been
promoted and sensationalised by the media but so far has little clinical
Professor Sheryl Hemphill expressed the view that it was not clear how
prevalent this addiction was, or whether it did exist.
In its submission, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute drew attention to the
debate about its existence, and to the amount of information about ‘technology addiction’. It noted
that, while further research is required, an array of responses was also
required to deal with the problem.
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation also noted that there had been
speculation that some unique aspects of the Internet may lure people into
difficulties that they might otherwise avoid, such as online gambling and accessing
pornographic sites. There is no research evidence that a passion for the
Internet is long lasting, or that excessive usage is not simply a reflection of
other social problems. Moreover, many of the strongest proponents for
establishing a separate category of Internet addiction had some commercial
interest in doing so. At some later time, however, excessive Internet usage may
be given as another example of an Impulse Control Disorder, such as gambling,
kleptomania, pyromania, etc.
While there are examples of young people who become ‘addicted’ to online
activities such as Facebook or online games, it is necessary to be more aware
of what they did online rather than blocking or only allowing access to
Mr Geordie Guy stated that, when individuals ignore pressing life
problems by immersing themselves in online games or other online behaviour, this
habit itself does not reflect problems with the online behaviour. Rather, these
are symptoms of social problems.
Mr Bruce Arnold believed that the notion of what he called
‘cyber-addiction’ had been strongly promoted by some therapists, tabloid
journalists and totalitarian governments. He suggested that some adolescents
had an over-engagement with electronic games or the Internet, in the same way
that others over-engage with sport, comics, TV or a range of other activities.
He also noted that there is very little recognition within medical and legal
communities of ‘television addiction, videogame addiction or cyber-addiction’, suggesting
that these are essentially ‘phantom disorders’.
The Internet Industry Association quoted American research that urged
proponents of safety education to study the history of youth drug and alcohol
abuse prevention. It noted ’striking similarities’ in the contexts of the two
initiatives and the intensity of public concern. There were ‘parallels in the
eagerness to prevent Internet victimisation with the early, rushed efforts to
prevent youth drug abuse’ in the 1970s and 1980s. It was argued that such
messages did little to change behaviour.
The Consultative Working Group on Cybersafety, however, considered that
computer gaming addictions are likely to be significant and have serious
implications for Australian society. It stated that over-use of video games is
most commonly seen among massive multiplayer online role playing game players,
‘who can be somewhat marginalised socially’.
While also not included in the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry,
access to online gambling raises concerns for young people.
The past ten years has seen greatly increased and sophisticated ways for
individuals to gamble, including access to 24-hour gambling through the
Internet, mobile phones and interactive television. According to the Australian
Psychological Society, there is evidence that young people are significantly
more likely to participate in most forms of gambling, except lotteries and
bingo, than older people. It believed that under-age gambling is ‘particularly
common’: about 60 percent of those 13 to 17 years old reported gambling at
least once a year. While gambling on
interactive sites, such as online casinos, is not legal in Australia, use of
the Internet for approved gambling on, for example, sporting events is allowed.
The Youth Affairs Council of South Australia stated:
In light of this, and the fact that there is still some
debate as to whether internet addiction should be a diagnosable condition,
YACSA will refrain from offering specific comment on the efficacy or otherwise
of potential treatments for internet “addiction.” However, we note with
interest developments overseas, for example a dedicated technology addiction
clinic in the UK28, and would encourage the government, in conjunction with the
sector, to explore these developments as well as any methodologies that
specifically confront excessive and damaging technology use in young people.
The Victorian Office of the Child Safety Commissioner noted that the
high level of sexualised imagery and violence in computer and online games is
currently being considered in the Minister for Home Affairs discussion paper .
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation commented:
Many children have unrestricted access to violence on the
internet, through a variety of media, including videos, and violent games.
Recent studies show that increased access to violence normalises this behaviour
within young people’s social groups and can in a minority of cases lead to
increased levels of violent behaviour.
The Association of Parents and Friends of ACT Schools referred to the
lack of ‘shockability’ due to desensitising through exposure.
Similarly, Ms Catherine Davis from the Australian Education Union commented:
The harm that is being done by the promotion of violence
through some of those games, not only violence per se, but also sexual violence
in the sorts of computer games that are out there at the moment are
mindboggling, and the effect that that has on both boys and girls and issues of
online addiction and gaming and those sorts of things should be thrown into the
Concern was also expressed in relation to online advertising and the
games available on line and it was suggested that legislative restrictions be
considered. The Australian
Psychological Society advised:
The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video
games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behaviour, aggressive
cognition, and aggressive affect, and for decreased empathy and pro-social
Online promotion of inappropriate behaviours
Inappropriate social and health behaviours promoted in the online
environment can include under-age drinking, drug use, suicide and anorexia.
Online availability of alcohol
NSW considered the issue of underage access to alcohol via the Internet
in 2001. To address concerns, reforms were made requiring NSW-based licensees
selling liquor over the Internet:
To display liquor licence numbers prominently on their websites,
and in any advertisement connected with Internet sales;
To display a notice stating that it was an offence to sell,
supply or obtain liquor on behalf of someone under 18 years of age;
Prospective purchasers to supply their dates of birth; and
Give written instructions to the person delivering the liquor
requiring delivery to the adult who placed the order, or to another adult at
the premises who undertakes to accept it on behalf of the person who placed the
These and other provisions were included in the Liquor Act 2007
(NSW). NSW liquor laws cannot be used to regulate liquor sellers’ activities if
they were not located within that State.
Online availability of drugs
The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service noted that a range
of prohibited goods, including illicit drugs, can be ordered via the online
environment, in addition to:
Guides to using/preparing drugs and expected experiences;
Guides on making narcotics with household items, including
concealing them and avoiding attention from law enforcement;
Detailed instructions on constructing explosive devices and improvised
Use of over-the-counter drugs to produce a desired effect;
Techniques for obtaining requirements for the production of
narcotics, including theft; and
Advice on the use of money transfer services when buying
Although not included in the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference, online
encouragement of suicide was a concern raised by some participants.
Distribution of material that counsels, promotes or provides instruction on
methods of suicide is illegal.
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation noted that pro-suicide sites contain
‘more than detailed’ information on how to commit suicide. Many incite the
reader to ‘end the pain’, to ‘achieve the bliss of death’. Others hector and
harass the reader, telling her/him how worthless their life is and how
worthwhile it will be to end it.
Family Voice Australia argued that the basic principles of law should
apply to the online environment as they apply to human communities in general.
If necessary, the nature of this environment may require specific applications
of these principles to ensure that they are applied effectively in a particular
Family Voice Australia drew attention to the suicide of two young
people, in Melbourne in 2007, who had followed detailed instructions from a
suicide website in the Netherlands. It believed that if young people were to be
protected from harm, it had to be recognised that the online environment
internationalised things such as the encouragement or promotion of suicide.
Family Voice Australia are critical of the adequacy of the current
‘take-down’ orders which do not protect young people from harm on sites hosted
overseas, and that Australian laws were ‘lagging behind’.
headspace added that:
There are potential dangers with tribute pages when a person
has suicided. We have found in the situation where a young person has suicided,
the tribute page inadvertently glamorises suicide. Some pages also give details
of the way the person killed themselves.
headspace suggested the establishment of a set of
guidelines in relation to the reporting of suicide on-line and especially for
social networking sites. headspace suggested this could be an extension of the
current Mindframe National Media Initiative.
Open question forums provide a range of advice from bloggers on a range
of subjects, including anorexia and drug usage.
For example, a simple search via Google leads to ‘anorexia tips’, and these
included ‘the thin commandments’. The Alannah and Madeline
Another content risk for children and young people are sites
advocating for a range of unhealthy life choices, including pro-anorexia
(pro-Ana) sites. A quick search brings up dozens of such sites, many of which
offer ‘thinspirational’ tips such as ‘creeds’, motivation, tips and tricks and
advice on how to stay thin.
It was also noted that the Internet can provide a source of information
assistance and support for people contemplating these behaviours:
Exposure to promotion of inappropriate behaviours can have
negative implications for young people but equally the Internet provides a safe
space for young people experiencing difficulty to express their views and
access support online. Responses to this issue need to focus on helping young people
to develop coping mechanisms and be aware of support available from parents and
services in the community.
Internet service providers also have in place some measures in relation
to these sites:
Facebook employs a reporting infrastructure to prevent
self-harm content on their pages, wherein content is reviewed by the Facebook
team and removed if necessary. MySpace
also takes proactive steps to prevent self-harm material appearing on its
users' profiles and encourages groups to help with recovery from eating
disorders and self-harm. MySpace bans and removes content that “promotes or
otherwise incites…physical harm against any group or individual.” These are just a few examples of how some global
companies work to protect children from harmful content online.
It must be recognised that, for most users most of the time, the online
environment is a prominent, useful and important part of their lives. In
considering any changes to current structures and practices, it is important to
seek to reduce risks for the protection of all users, rather than introducing
onerous restrictions in an attempt to protect the minority. It is also
important to address causes of abuses rather than their symptoms.
To be effective, cooperative national solutions must be devised and
implemented. Improvements for all users must be drawn together to involve
professionals (such as researchers, teachers, police, youth workers),
parents/carers and, most importantly, young people. Above all, best practice
must be implemented.
Conclusions about the means of correcting abuses, and the
recommendations that may follow from them, will therefore be addressed later in