News

Cyberspace Comes at a Cost

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
15 Apr 2011

Principal of St Aloysius

College Father

Christopher Middleton SJ

Communication and the free flow of information has never been easier. Whether we use mobile phones to text, or log onto the internet to blog, share thoughts and photographs on social networking sites or join the conversation on Twitter, there is no doubt modern technology has changed our lives. But Father Christopher Middleton SJ, Principal of St Aloysius College at Milson's Point has warned students that new technology also comes at a price and privacy is something we can no longer take for granted.

"The incident earlier this month involving the use of Skype to demean a young female trainee at the Australian Defence Force Academy once again highlights the potential for inappropriate use of the internet to destroy young people's positive sense of self," Fr Middleton says in a recent issue of the College's weekly newsletter, Gonzagan.

"A few weeks earlier, Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan were severely embarrassed, and even put in danger, by the unthinking and racist comments of a few posted on Facebook for all the world to see," he wrote.

Fr Middleton's article was not an attack on the misuse of technology by members of the defence force. Instead these incidents were used as examples of how reputations can be put at risk and the sometimes unwitting damage caused by the posting of impulsive careless or malicious remarks on Facebook, Twitter or by an ill-considered video stunt relayed across the internet via YouTube or another social networking site.

"The internet and modern technology provides great potential for humiliation and psychological harm," he told Catholic Communications. "Making an ill-considered or cruel remark on Facebook is far different from the old days when school kids wrote graffiti on the back of shed doors or on the rear of the toilet block. Today whatever is posted online is up there for anyone and everyone to see."

Cyberbullying is on the increase across

Australia

Pointing out the tremendous power for good that sites such as Facebook can have, Fr Middleton cites the recent human rights movement and burgeoning democracy in Egypt  and other countries across the Middle East as examples. "These movements depend on the social networks and mobile phones to communicate, protest and build resistance," he said.

But along with such positive results, the new technology has also thrown up new and important concerns. This can be seen in the rise of "sexting" and the videoing of fights on mobile phones between teenagers or even younger students which have now become commonplace on the Web.  Cyber-bullying is also becoming a price to pay for modern technology where young people are targeted and publicly humiliated and demeaned on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter through a flood of vicious texts or pictures.

Parents and teachers see Cyber-bullying as a disturbing trend and on the rise across Australia. Different from traditional bullying, the perpetrators are usually anonymous and the victim can be bullied not just at school or in the workplace but in his or her own home any time day or night and on the net or mobile phone.

"Schools struggle to keep up with what may be happening, let alone in responding effectively to incidents that affect the welfare of their students," Fr Middleton wrote in the St Aloysius newsletter and referred to "increasing concerns about how social networking sites create new opportunities for bullying and demeaning others, and how this can magnify the impact of bullying on victims."

Some hurtful and destructive comments however do not always stem from deliberate choices, he said. Instead they are part of today's email, texting and chat room culture where young people as well as adults tend to write with less care and little or no thought about the impact their words may have on others.

"The whole format of these new forms of communication can coarsen our sensitivity towards the feelings and rights of others, he warned and said in several cases, a student had been genuinely surprised when such an impact was pointed out," Fr Middleton warned.

Teens don't always realise the impact of a

spontaneous carelessless remark posted

online

The cumulative impact of unthinking comments or misplaced humour carried into the victim's home via computer and posted for many others to see is an attack on a person's privacy and sense of self and should not be underestimated, he said.

"Words written in haste and without thought cannot easily be retracted. It is also very easy to fall back on an unthinking use of language in a medium where communication is immediate, spontaneous and where rules of language from spelling to swearing do not apply."

 Fr Middleton cautioned students and parents about the ease inappropriate sexist, racist or homophobic references can be made on impulse and without consideration or forethought.

"Anti-Semitic comments can also be made without thought or the realisation of the appalling legacy such attitudes carry," he said and described modern technology as a potent weapon that most people, whatever their age, are unaware they are wielding.

Urging parents, teenagers and schools to carry on a dialogue on the use of the net and the role of chat rooms and social networking sites, Fr Middleton reiterated the importance of continually reflecting on what is happening in our information age and learning to discern what our response should be.It is not a case of good guys from the bad guys, he said, but rather a case of trying to deal with "a multitude of voices out there that can almost overwhelm."
 
While Facebook remains the world's most popular social networking site for teenagers as well as adults, the sheer size of the site makes checks and balances against posts that bully with vicious, cruel and destructive comments and videos difficult to monitor. Other dangers such as cyber stalkers or pedophile networks are also hard to control.

xt3.com

For this reason the Archdiocese of Sydney's social networking site for youth, www.XT3.com has 24/7 moderation. Xt3.com is one of the fastest growing and most successful Catholic websites worldwide. It is a content driven interactive site with a vast array of resources but is also considered one of the safest. This is one of the reason schools in the Archdiocese are using a specially developed religion education online program, iFaith which is on the xt3 network.

"Of course we need to keep pace with multi-media technology but we also have a responsibility not only with the content we make available but with providing a safe network, " the Director of Catholic Communications, Katrina Lee said.

"The 24/7 moderation with our contacts around the world, means we are able to detect any potential problems immediately and take appropriate action. I think this gives our youth membership a feeling of security."

Also helping parents and young people as well as teachers and schools cope with the fast changing information highway and advances in new technology, Choicez Media and its founder directors, Jonathan Doyle MLMEd and Karen Doyle RN have created "Cyber Survivor," a three part DVD resource on internet safety and cyber bullying. This can be obtained via their website at www.choicez.com.au. The Commonwealth Government has also created a Cybersmart website (www.cybersmart.gov.au) as a guide for teachers, parents and their children on how to safely use the net.

To read the full article by Fr Middleton published in Gonzagan, the newsletter of St Aloysius College at Milson's Point, log on to http://www.staloysius.nsw.edu.au/newsletter/2011/2011_10.pdf