Lesley Podesta presents at the 7th World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights

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World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights
Dublin, June, 2017

Keynote delivered by Lesley Podesta, CEO, Alannah & Madeline Foundation

Thank you and good afternoon.

“People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

“People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

This was written in the 1980s by Neil Postman, the famous American media theorist and educator.

Before the internet.

Upon first hearing, it seems a very dark prophecy indeed.  And when one applies it to the lives of younger generations, perhaps some of us may think it is not far off the mark.

We hear a lot about the doom and gloom of new technologies and their endless capacity for distraction and danger.

The narcissism of selfies and social media.

The ‘death’ of childhood.

But there are challenges – and fast-moving and fast-morphing challenges at that!  If we look closer, we can find so many stunning, positive aspects to how technology may influence our children’s future.

I recently looked at a photo that actually captures the moment a group of young school-girls are using a new art gallery app.  The moments before and after this, they were looking closely at the painting and relating it back to the app and all of the information made available to them.

The app was richly interactive, and prompted the students to find out more about the artist – his life and the time in which he lived.  It also demonstrated painting techniques such as the layering of colours and the direction of brushstrokes.

Despite all of this, Neil Postman’s quote about technology eroding our capacity to think is relatable.  And he wrote it before the internet was even a ‘thing’.

Before MySpace, Facebook, SMS, World of Warcraft.  Before eBay.  Before such a thing as a ‘Netflix binge’.

Before Twitter was used as the channel of choice for newly elected presidents.

Now, mercilessly, we are bombarded with smartphones and tablets – smaller screens with an even greater capacity for distraction and entertainment.

Families sit in their lounge rooms in front of the television, in front of these little screens – a distraction upon a distraction.  Entertainment upon entertainment.

But screen technologies are also interactive – as I saw in the example of the art gallery app.  We click, swipe, tap, press, enlarge, drag, upload, download, share, caption, crop, mash-up, montage, block, report, comment – sometimes perhaps when we shouldn’t….

Do we adore them because they undo our capacities to think?  Do we switch on the devices to switch off our brains?  Or do we use them because they engage us far more than anything as before?

Perhaps we can agree that it’s a combination of both.

And one of the most important skills now and into the future is our capacity to think through these distractions – to take what they do best and maximize it.  And importantly, to know when they present risks to our personal safety and wellbeing.

And what about our children?  How do we teach and empower them to know the difference?  How do we protect them when they need protection, and help them navigate the risks and rewards of this new online world?  Especially challenging considering none of us lived through such a childhood.

Neil Postman also forecast what he called: the ‘Disappearance of Childhood’, in his book of the same name.  It is a remarkable book that presents some confronting observations.

He noted that since the Industrial Revolution, the schooling of children has been a carefully graduated process.  Children work their way through pre-school, kindergarten, primary school, secondary school…  and information is given to them in stages according to maturity and development.

It was an experience of the world, a curriculum of learning all pre-determined by adults.  And as a result, adults had a lot more control over the when and where children had access to content.

Technology disrupts this carefully graduated process.  Television and the internet make all of this information readily available.  Whereas in the past it was off-limits and seen as belonging to a world of ‘adult secrets’, now it is available at a click or a swipe.  You can’t ‘ban books’ so easily anymore.

You only need to think about some of the online content now freely available to all ages, to recognise the scale of the issue in front of us.  Pornography, violence in many forms, live footage from war zones and terrorism…

He theorised that this information age was taking us back to a time before the industrial revolution, where the distinction between children and adults was less obvious.

Certainly an idea to ponder throughout the Congress – an event discussing such important matters of child protection and rights, exploitation, abduction.

What impact does all of this disruption have on our children?  And what’s the best approach to ensure our children have a safe and supportive childhood?  It’s easy to be fearful of new technologies, especially when their purpose is unclear, or suspicious.

And in some ways we should be suspicious… because I think the interests of children have been largely ignored.


  • In 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee released the code that would underpin the foundation of the World Wide Web.
  • In the same year, the UN adopted the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

What a coincidence!

Let us ask ourselves – what do children’s rights look like in the digital age?

Up until now, the internet has largely been seen as an adult resource in terms of regulation and content – children rarely featured in governance discussions until now.

Several decades on from the creation of the World Wide Web, claims for equality, privacy, dignity and speech increase.  Solutions remain deeply contested.

While many public controversies – hacking of online reading games for children; parental oversharing; exploitation and grooming of children through their chat features on apps; image sharing by pedophiles – hit the headlines on a daily basis, there is little agreement on what regulation should be in place.

The whole notion of the ‘digitally enabled child’ is a very confused debate but one we must have.

So many people say the internet is ‘age blind’ – but it can’t be.

Some progress –

At the moment we seem to be landing on changes in internet governance with some specific provisions for reducing explicit online child sexual abuse with remaining problems left to parents.

I do not pretend to have all the answers but I do know that we need two things – children’s rights to participate and also to be protected online.   And the answer will not only be a technological or legal one.  There is a desperate need for much better research and to recognise that issues-based platforms online can advance children’s rights while commercial-based platforms can undermine them.

Don’t lock children out.

Internet participation can be a great force for good.

The digital environment is in its infancy.

The current regime of self-regulation often puts self-interest ahead of the ‘best interests of the child’.

We look forward to continuing to push this debate – the ethics of how the internet is governed.

At the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, we have been working in the field of cyber safety and digital literacy for the past decade. We recognise there is a delicate balance between risk and reward for young people online.

In many respects, cyber safety is the ‘child protection issue of our time’. But technology also presents young people with one of the greatest opportunities we have ever seen.  We think digital literacy is fundamental.

We believe all children should experience a life full of unlimited potential and bright futures.

I’m proud to share one of our five key priorities for the next five years:

To build an eSmart population and reduce online harm to children

eSmart is our flagship program for schools, public libraries and workplaces where young people study, work and play.

Piloted first in 2009, eSmart Schools is now in over 2,300 schools across Australia. It is a world-leading, evidence-based system which uses a cultural change framework approach to promote respectful behaviours – both on and offline – to reduce bullying and cyber bullying.

It is a program we are extremely proud of. A recent independent evaluation found that:

  • 80% of school principals said it had changed school-wide culture and behaviour with regard to cyber safety, technology and bullying.

In the same evaluation, school leaders said that implementation of the framework:

  • created a positive culture within the school community,
  • prompted action that would not otherwise have been taken, and that it
  • improved the way the school managed issues and incidents

But, eSmart is a much bigger vision.

We often talk, and have written about this idea of an ‘eSmart Australia’. Raising a generation of smart, safe, responsible children, who are capable and compassionate online.

Digital participation commences at a young age. All children and young people need digital skills to be successful in the 21st century – at school, in the workforce, and in society. We want them to develop a strong sense of empathy, but also, have a deeper understanding of the ethics of behaviour online.

We know that:

  • Children are online before they can read and are highly engaged from a young age
  • The skills of digital literacy, protection and wellbeing commence in the family
  • Digital literacy is a necessary prerequisite for learning – at home and at school.

As a behaviour change program, eSmart follows in the footsteps of other well-known and successful campaigns such as QUIT Smoking and SunSmart. SunSmart completely altered the way Australians protect themselves from sun exposure and sunburn, thus dramatically reducing the rates of skin cancer. Its catch-cry of Slip, Slop, Slap – SLIP on a shirt, SLOP on sunscreen and SLAP on a hat, is still instantly recognisable and known by most, if not all, Australians.

eSmart follows similar behavior change principles. Its own tagline of ‘Smart, Safe, Responsible’ summarises its social aim.

Just as SunSmart began in schools – engaging teachers, students and their parents – so too does eSmart work to create a safe and supportive community, both online and off.

But it grows out from there. The campaign becomes a whole-of-community priority. To do this, it requires activations at different social and political levels.

For example -

Just this year we have unveiled McDonald’s as the first ever eSmart workplace in Australia. This is another exciting development of the eSmart society-wide approach. In the case of McDonald’s – and we’re hoping more organisations will follow – creating an eSmart workplace for teenagers and young adults.

It was the beyond wonderful Sally Nicholes who introduced us to the senior leadership team at McDonald’s Australia, and it was Sally who originally invited us to take part in the World Congress in Sydney in 2013.

Thank you so much, Sally! For all the amazing work you do and what you’ve done for children around the world.

Back in 2013, we organised the first ever youth cyber safety stream at the World Congress. We brought in experts from across Australia and internationally. Notably, Anne Collier from the United States, who was co-chair of the Obama Administration’s Online Safety and Technology Roundtable. We have since worked with Anne at two global internet governance forums in Bali and Istanbul – run under the auspices of the United Nations.

While our work in Australia remains our core work, these issues go beyond national borders – as is often said, the internet is borderless. Strategies for protecting and empowering young people online must include significant international collaboration.

Protection requires transnational cooperation and vigilance.

We currently sit on the Dynamic Coalition on Child Online Safety at the IGF, which recently has done important work in the area of child online exploitation.

The Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police was also a featured speaker during our 2013 program in Sydney, and the AFP have generously funded my appearance this year, to which we are so, so grateful.

Of course, the AFP also work collaboratively on a global scale on cyber safety and protecting children. Their recent work on cyber hate crimes and tracking down online predators has been remarkable.

The AFP have been valuable advocates for the Foundation’s programs over the last decade; in particular, supporting one of our other major initiatives: the National Centre Against Bullying. This coalition of leading researchers and thinkers has done important work in bullying, cyber bullying and the law.

It would be impossible to talk about Australia’s efforts in cyber safety and not mention the significant work done by the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner.

Their impact over the last ten years has been impressive, particularly in schools with their award-winning education resources, but more recently they have established themselves as a highly effective reporting agency for parents, teachers and children, especially in cases of cyber bullying, but also, alongside the AFP, in the area of cyber hate and illegal online activity.

I must make special mention of their recent work in addressing image-based abuse and their eSafety Women program – which helps empower women to take control online.

It is becoming an imperative that our prevention work begins at younger ages. Children are going online before they can read.

We are working on the Early Childhood Australia digital policy group, looking at some of the emerging issues and informing social and education policy.

The core aim of our work in this area is to find that balance between protecting young children, while giving them appropriate opportunities to learn through play – in this case, digital play.

More than any other issue, early childhood and digital technology highlights the need for the technology industry to work openly and proactively with organisations such as the Alannah & Madeline Foundation.

And we are always asking the questions:

  • Are we doing enough?
  • Is industry doing enough?
  • How can we be more effective in protecting and empowering our children?
  • How do we protect the rights of children while affording them the opportunity to participate?

As younger and younger children go online, it increases the risk that they will encounter distressing content that will damage their mental health. Over the last 10 years we’ve been learning about how to best help teens and then pre-teens with their lives online, but now we must turn more of our attention to this even younger cohort.

The prevalence of violent and hateful content online is disturbing. Young people must be protected from inappropriate content so that they are free to enjoy themselves without fear. Children should be protected in the online space in the same way that they are protected in the offline world.

There are two things we want to flag:

  1. Companies should offer accounts that are specifically designed for under 18s, and
  2. Industry must work proactively to prevent exposure to online abuse through searching for inappropriate content – by introducing technological mechanisms that flag accounts involved in suspicious activity.

It must be said that Google has been a fabulous supporter of ours, especially on our eSmart Digital Licence product – an online learning resource for improving the digital literacy and cyber safety skills of children. Google has helped us roll this out to all Year 6 students across Australia, and only a couple of days ago, we launched the Digital Licence in New Zealand, offering it to all Level 8 and 9 students!

But how else can we work with the technology industry? We’re always looking for more opportunities.  Digital literacy from a very early age is the best way to build critical thinking, rights and protection.

Digital literacy is the key.

We see our sector as playing a key role in preventing harm to children by investing in prevention and raising understanding.

Keeping children safe requires cooperation, skill, openness and coalition building – we stand with our legal and technology partners to build the best child protective digital experience possible.

Thank you.

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