Time to get the real policy picture on how to combat online abuse of our children

Governments are not taking the the time to listen to the genuine experts on the impact of social media in schools, writes Madonna King

Jun 13, 2024, updated Jun 13, 2024

A few years ago now, Holly* argued with a group of other students at her NSW high school.

Their revenge was fast and effective; they photoshopped Holly’s face onto a naked body, and distributed it.

This was before the expertise artificial intelligence now allows, but their artwork was detailed and remarkably life-like.

Holly, despite her protests, was disciplined and faced a school suspension, despite maintaining her innocence.

Her mother told me the story, and she wore the heartbreak all over her face. She had been utterly broken by what she believed her daughter had done. She saw the photo, and believed her accusers.

Holly, in a matter of days, became withdrawn; a shadow of the sassy teen she had always been.

Not long after, on Holly’s dogged insistence, the photograph was investigated – and found to be fake.

I’ve lost touch with her mother now, but I’ll remember the impact on her, as much as her daughter, forever.

Would Holly ever trust her again, she wondered. Why hadn’t she believed her? Could photoshopping really be that realistic?

The mass creation of fake nude images of students at Bacchus Marsh Grammar in Victoria is simply the 2024 version of what happened to Holly three or four years ago.

But AI-generated images are as lifelike as you can get; it is impossible, with the naked eye, to tell the difference between what is real, and what is not.

This case should stop us all in our tracks; not because it is new – this type of bullying is happening in our schools regularly – but because it shows the nefarious reach artificial intelligence is beginning to deliver.

Our own police, in Australia, know that on the dark web images of babies and toddlers are being shared among pedophile networks. Some are genuine photographs of abused children being swapped and sold globally. Others are real children, with fake bodies.

What happens when those children later find out they’ve been criminal fodder for networks which operate across the world?

Or what happens when artificial intelligence takes over our computer games?

Virtual reality and augmented reality are already changing the way we use screens. Deepfake technology and neural synthesis, cloud gaming and wearable haptic suits – which deliver feedback to the body in computer games – is a massive issue now being confronted by police, trying to track down online sex abuse.

What’s real and what’s not? Is our child talking to a fictitious critter or a sexual predator? How do police even investigate that? What laws are relevant? What jurisdiction does an ‘online’ predator live in?

These are not my questions. They are questions police and lawyers raised with me, during a recent research project.

The Bacchus Marsh Grammar case has brought this issue to national public attention.

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But here’s the irony.

Our school leaders see the impact of these cases daily – eight-year-old boys accessing unimaginable pornography, 14-year-olds upselling nudes to make money, bullying and harassment involving images that should not be seen outside a bedroom, and sextortion – where our children are being bribed by overseas crime networks.

And yet, when were our school principals last part of any national policy conversation on how to combat a disease that is enveloping so many of our teens?

They are our biggest resource when it comes to navigating how we deal with children and social media. They see the heartbreak, deal with the bullying, and in recent times, their staff have been called upon to tell a parent their child was being sextorted.

This latest case will be news to few leaders in any big Australian school. Dealing with these cases – some big and some small, but always involving student victims – have become part of a school’s remit.

So why wouldn’t we engage school leaders in developing the policies that most affect our children?

They see the epidemic in anxiety and the scourge of eating disorders daily. They deal with the impact of social media and worry about the lack of self-confidence they see in class.

And it is preposterous that with the knowledge they have, and the time they spend with our children, they are outcasts when it comes to determining policy, outside the classroom curriculum.

The disturbing doctoring of photos, involving girls in years nine to 12 at Bacchus Marsh Grammar in Victoria, is this week’s headline.

But it should also be the impetus for us to stop and consider what might be next, and how best we deal with that. And a visit to the principal’s office might be a wise first step.

*Holly is not her real name.


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