Internet filters in schools often compromise a teacher's ability to teach, yet at the same time are easy for tech-savvy students to get around, a parliamentary committee on cyber bullying has heard.
The Federal Parliament undertook a cyber-safety committee late last week to investigate community concerns about protecting children from bullying online and the measures that could be used to prevent it, such as internet filtering.
Philip Lewis, principal at Gleeson College and chair of the Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools, told the committee that the rise of mobile phone use by school-aged children made internet filtering ineffective in schools.
"The ... problem that schools have is that while we put lots of filters on our networks, the more recent developments of being able to access data and the internet through phones makes it even harder for schools to police that," he said. "Even though it does not happen on our network it is happening during the day."
Mary Carmody, senior education adviser with the Catholic Education Office, said there was also a fine line between protecting children and removing a valuable teaching resource from the teachers.
"There is that balance between having enough open access so that we can engage in really contemporary learning and enough restrictions so that we can provide some security for young people," she said.
This was a view shared by Mary Campbell, associate professor, Australian University Cyberbullying Research Alliance. Campbell said the internet is like a pool; you can build a fence around it but that doesn't mean you don't teach your children how to swim.
"It does not mean that you do not actually educate them about water safety in other areas," she said.
She went on to add that filtering of any kind can't prevent cyber bullying. "I cannot see how you can stop me going on to Facebook and bullying somebody else by any type of filter, because you cannot say that you are never allowed to say the word 'loser', or 'You are not invited to my birthday party' or all of the horrible things that people can say. They cannot be filtered out, because they are normal children's language."
Campbell said that children will also eventually work out ways around the pool's fence.
"For pornographic sites, when children are older, they will use a proxy server to access pornographic sites if they want to because anybody with any technological expertise can, anytime you put filters on, get around them."
Mandatory ISP-level filtering
The government's planned mandatory internet service provider (ISP) level filter was met with criticism by Associate Professor Karen Vered from the Flinders University Department of Screen and Media, who told the committee that hiding the internet from children would not be an effective countermeasure to reduce issues like cyber bullying.
"Clean feed and things like that are not going to help young people to develop their ability to discriminate, to evaluate and to act under circumstances that require them to exercise their own judgement," she said. "If we do not give them a chance to exercise judgement, to practice that, how will they develop that skill?
"The emphasis going forward needs to be on education and experience for children and young people, while respecting their interests, their autonomy and their agency."
However, the filter was welcomed by several groups who spoke to the committee. Professor Elizabeth Handsley, president of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, said the filter would be good for parents unwilling to install their own filter.
"We realise there are political difficulties with internet filtering at ISP level, but from our perspective it is a useful tool. It will minimise the risk to children where parents do not have the wherewithal or the desire to install their own filter," she said.
Rosyln Phillips, national research officer for Christian lobby group FamilyVoice Australia, said the government's planned filter would protect her children in areas out of her control.
"My problem is that as a parent I can control what happens in my home but I cannot control what happens outside," she told the committee. "Even though my own children may not have a mobile phone with internet access, their friends are likely to have one. Just having parental filters in the home is not a solution because for some of the worst material you need Senator [Stephen] Conroy's mandatory filter."