Digital literacy and cyber safety

Students must be online on a daily basis. The digital world, though, is a complex space & keeping young people safe online can be difficult.

Education today requires students to be online, and on devices. Australian teens spend an average of 14.4 hours online every week.

Whether it is saving documents to the cloud, browsing the net for information for an assignment, watching educational videos, learning via gamification, or typing a report using word processing software, all students will be online and use digital devices at some point each week. For older students, this is likely to be each day. Phones, tablets and computers are commonplace in most modern classrooms, with students interacting digitally with each other, their teachers, or with people external to the classroom or school.

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And while this connectivity provides outstanding educational benefits, there are, of course, risks. Viruses and malware, as well as unwanted images and videos, and even online predators can make the online world a scary and dangerous place. Accessing information can also be fraught, with a plethora of misinformation presented online as fact.

Speaking in 2022, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said: “Complaints to eSafety have increased substantially across all our reporting schemes since the pandemic, including those affecting school-age children.

“Almost two-thirds of young people aged 14 to 17 have been exposed to harmful content online and schools play a pivotal role in helping them develop the digital skills they need to stay safe. They are also vital in dealing at the coal face with critical incidents.

“The challenges schools face are not unique to any one system or region – they are increasingly common across Australia,” Ms Inman Grant said.

Data from eSafety shows that 44 percent of Australian young people report having a negative online experience in the past six months, including 15 percent who received threats or abuse online. More than one in three young people report experiencing online trolling, and 53 percent report being cyberbullied.

Worryingly, 11 percent of Australian teens report having sent a picture of themselves to a stranger online. Thirty percent of Australian women have been harassed online, and LGBTQ+ children are three times more likely to be bullied online compared to other children.

Children, then, need to learn both digital literacy and cyber safety. Navigating this blend can be a delicate and at times confusing process for students, and for educators.

Digital natives

The current generation, and indeed the preceding one, is often referred to as ‘digital natives’. These young people have grown up with computers and other devices in their homes, schools, bedrooms and pockets.

With this, an implied level of responsibility has developed; we assume children and young people know how to use online devices and technologies because they have been around them their entire lives. This may mean students are not adequately supervised or monitored to ensure they are using technology correctly and appropriately, or left to their own devices because adults assume the young person knows what they are doing. Research, though, suggests this may be misguided.

Julian Frallion from the Australian Council for Educational Research analysed research from the National Assessment Program – Information and Communication Technology Literacy (NAP-ITCL) and the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) 2013 and 2018. The analysis revealed that in 2017, 46 percent of Australian Year 6 students, and 13 percent of Year 10 students could not identify the best software to use for given purposes. They also could not employ a critical perspective when considering digital information. Both of these skills are necessary in the classroom, but may become particularly important for remote learning and homework activities undertaken away from the classroom where no teacher support is available.

Further to this, there is little evidence to suggest that student’s digital literacy has increased over time. The digital literacy of Year 6 students changed very little between 2011 and 2017, while Year 10 digital literacy has declined since 2011. So while students access to ICT and digital devices is on the rise, there has not been a corollary rise in digital literacy.

cyber safety
© Syda Productions, Adobe Stock

Teaching Digital Literacy

The Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies outlines digital literacy capabilities for students. This is separated into two strands – knowledge and understanding, and processes and production skills. As well as learning about the nuts and bolts of the technology, like the differences between hardware, software and networks, students should also learn how to use digital technologies to create ideas and information, find, design and implement digital solutions, and evaluate solutions, as well as existing information.

The curriculum also includes Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Capability. Here, the curriculum states, students will “develop ICT capability as they learn to use ICT effectively and appropriately to access, create and communicate ideas, solve problems and work collaboratively in all learning areas at school and in their lives beyond school.”

ICT can be used for research, creating multimedia information products, data analysis, controlling processes and devices, and designing solutions to problems.

Learning the best browsers or databases for information gathering, the optimal search terms for relevant results, and identifying misinformation are important skills for the digitally literate. This extends to the responsible use of online sources and materials.

A 2021 review into the ICT capability as presented in the Australian Curriculum, recommended it be renamed to Digital Literacy. This perhaps highlights the important and complex nature of this skill, beyond understanding the basics of using a computer. With the name change came some updates to the elements and sub-elements of the capability, which now include: practising digital safety and wellbeing; manage digital wellbeing; manage online privacy and safety; and respect intellectual property.

Managing digital wellbeing includes the provision that students should be aware of the nature and impact of technology on their health and lifestyle, such as excessive screen time.

Inappropriate content

Federal Government body Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) reported that close to half of children between 9 to 16 years of age experience regular exposure to sexual images. Younger children, aged 9 to 12, are particularly likely to be distressed or upset by p*rnography.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a strong advocate for young people, and the Movement Director at Collective Shout. Tankard Reist works with schools and students around the country to educate young people, parents and educators about the many risks of the online word.

Speaking in 2023, she highlighted the damaging effects of inappropriate, and most often unsolicited, online content.

“Children are having their developing sexual templates warped by the toxic education provided by pornography exposure,” Tankard Reist said. “We are seeing a rise of child-on-child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, children making sexual groaning and moaning noises, girls threatened with rape if they don’t send nudes, and other p*rn-inspired behaviours in schools.”

Tankard Reist said girls are reporting more sexual harassment, touching, sexual moaning, rape threats, demands for nudes and unsolicited dick pics. Many girls do not feel safe at school.

These observations are supported by the AIFS, which reports that in the absence of other reliable information, pornography can become young people’s main source for sex education.


Defined by the eSafety Commission, cyberbullying is when someone uses the internet to be mean to a child or young person so they feel bad or upset. It can happen on a social media site, game, app, or any other online or electronic service or platform. It can include: posts, comments, texts, messages, chats, livestreams, memes, images, videos and emails.

cyber safety
© Kobus L/, Adobe Stock

As with physical or ‘real-world’ bullying, students may in some instances unwittingly cause harm or offense to another student. Young people must be taught to identify and understand what cyber-bullying is, to ensure they do not engage in it.

School-time mobile phone bans have been rolled out around the country, with all education ministers agreeing to a national commitment to ban, restrict or manage the use of mobile phones in government schools. It is hoped that banning the use of mobile phones during school hours will reduce the negative impact from inappropriate use of mobile devices, and reduce unnecessary distractions in classrooms to help both teachers and students focus on learning.

Reducing incidents of cyberbullying has also been cited as a reason for these bans. During school hours, students will get a break from what can be relentless attacks from digital bullies. Face-to-face social interactions between students may also improve, as students are not on their devices during break times.

The answers

In May 2023, eSafety Commissioner Julia Inman Grant announced new tools to help prepare five- to eight-year-olds for life online.

“Our research shows 81 percent of parents with children aged 2 to 5 report their child is using the  internet, so we have to start educating them at an early age,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“Teachers, as well as parents and carers, can play a pivotal role in helping children develop digital skills to have positive, safe experiences online and develop good habits when using technology.”

The tools offer age-appropriate, curriculum-aligned resources to help prepare children for the increasing risk of exposure to online harm. Free, self-paced, online professional learning modules for teachers include evidence-based advice and practical strategies for teaching online safety in the classroom. This comes after the Federal Government committed an additional $132.1 million in additional funding over four years, for eSafety in the 2023 budget.

Clearly, digital literacy and cyber safety are important issues for our young people in an educational setting, and at home. Equipping them with the tools and resources to navigate the digital world is critical.

There are, though, no easy answers or simple solutions. Schools around the nation are working hard to keep students safe online, and teach them to navigate the various pitfalls of living in a digital world.

To be effective, though, this education must extend beyond the classroom. Parents and families have an important role to play in keeping their students safe online. Awareness around the inherent risks of being online should be communicated to families consistently, as well as what the school is doing to mitigate these risks.

Online government resources, as well as private external providers can provide information and training to support schools in teaching digital literacy and cyber safety. PLD for staff, and workshops for students and parents can help raise awareness of safe online practices.

And to feel safe online, students must feel safe in the real world. Ensure your students know who they can reach out to if they see something inappropriate online, are being cyber-bullied, feel uncomfortable in the digital space, or are simply unsure if information they read is accurate.

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