We believe the Toolkit for Universities, a collaboration by eSafety and Universities Australia, will go a long way to helping university communities stay just as safe online as they endeavour to be on their physical campuses.
Universities offer the chance to meet people from all walks of life, have challenging and open discussions, and make lifelong friends. Unfortunately, at university we can also encounter harmful online behaviours, including image-based abuse, cyber abuse and online hate speech.
The Toolkit is especially timely as, in the wake of COVID-19, so much of what universities normally do face-to-face has been shifted online.
Universities are not unique in this regard. As videoconferencing has replaced physical meetings, for example, we have seen many organisations mugged by harms such as “Zoombombing”, which can shade from the vaguely amusing to the decidedly sinister. However, universities, which deliver hundreds of lectures a day, sometimes to hundreds of students at a time, are especially vulnerable.
The very nature of the core demographic studying at university — young adults — carries vulnerabilities with it. Over 35 per cent of reports of image-based-abuse made to eSafety relate to young adults in the 18-24 age-group — an age-group that comprises over 60 per cent of all enrolments at Australian universities.
During the first three weeks of the COVID-19 “lockdown” there was an 86 per cent increase in reports to eSafety of image-based abuse.
eSafety research shows that almost one in four young women in this very age-bracket have had their nude or sexual images shared online without their consent.
International students at universities are also vulnerable and have been regular targets of sextortion and sexploitation scams, where, for example, they find themselves blackmailed on the basis of intimate images they have naively provided of themselves to a stranger.
This is where the Toolkit comes in. The first edition, which we’re releasing today, contains more than a dozen resources that provide targeted advice for students, academics and institutions. They cover a range of topics including: how to prepare for (and respond to) online safety incidents; how to support the online wellbeing of staff who may face cyber abuse; how to assess your current online safety preparedness; and how to use social media and digital platforms safely and set expectations for online engagement.
eSafety and Universities Australia will be rolling out further joint resources, but we think the Toolkit is a powerful first step towards creating safer online university environments and promoting the responsible and respectful use of technology.
Julie Inman Grant is the eSafety Commissioner. Catriona Jackson is chief executive of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on 20 May 2020.