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The Challenges Students Face Today and Responding To Online Safety Incidents with Rozika Pratap, South Australia Department for Education


Rozika Pratap, Cyber Awareness and Education Lead from the Department for Education, South Australia has extensive experience working with K-12 schools to keep students safe whilst online.

In this episode of Saasyan's Wellbeing Wednesday Series,  Rozika discusses the biggest mental health challenges students face today, the impacts that adverse online behaviours have on children, plus the policies put in place to respond to these incidents.


What is the biggest challenge students face today when it comes to mental health?

Before we unpack that question, it's really around what are the risk factors that can contribute to that increase in mental health issues for our students.

So those could be things like events such as the pandemic, for example.

We know that news is prevalent on any device that they go to, not just on TV, so it could be like scary news, you know, bombings, murders and things like that, that they might come across.

Other contributing factors or risk factors would be like family break up, family dynamic issues and home friendship issues, things like that.

So what we certainly do see in schools and in talking to my network, was these risk factors start off small, and so then they start creating that uncertainty fear, loss of control and panic for our students, and I was experiencing this with students as young as in reception.

So quite early on we see students displaying these behaviors.

When you're an educator, you do have that understanding that our behaviours are a direct result of emotions, so we're trying to unpack what the emotion is behind it.

So for our students that, you know when they're feeling fear, panic, loss of control, it comes out in what they describe as “butterflies in my stomach”, sweaty palms, things like that.

And we saw anxiety being quite prevalent for our students. And so that's that excessive and persistent fear of a threat. Whether that's real or perceived, it's still something that they are feeling, so we need to support them to go through those emotions.

So we have seen an increase in anxiety. We have seen an increase in what is now termed as trauma and stressor related disorders, so things that stem from trauma or traumatic events. So this was previously known as anxiety or part of anxiety disorder.

But thank goodness it's now a stand-alone because as our society changes, dynamics change. We are seeing a lot of traumatic events and students talking about a lot of traumatic events, so there is significant mental health concerns around trauma.

This could be from seeing a traumatic event like a car accident or having your family break down, so parents divorcing and what happens as part of that divorce or separation.

We are also seeing a rise in depression and depression related searches, and looking for support services, helpline and things like that, around depression.

So we're seeing that a lot more, especially for our older students. Because like I said, you know, we're seeing anxiety with our younger students and slowly that can evolve into a more severe mental health issue.

And one of the most trending, I guess mental health issue that I am seeing is around feeding and eating disorders.

There's a lot of searches around “am I too fat?” looking at body images and comparing themselves. And again, like I said, it all stems back to perhaps there’s a lack of control in whatever is happening at home or there's issues with friendships, and you know, those risk factors really elevate these mental health issues.

With our students, you know their role models are, yes, in a school setting, educators, but most definitely, it's the adults in their environment.

So with the pandemic, however the adult in the environment reacted or behaved to it, that's how the younger students have reacted. And, you know, have then copied that, or echoed that behaviour.

There has been certainly an increase in students not wanting to go to school because there is that fear and anxiety around “something bad's going to happen.”


Have you ever had to respond to an incident dealing with misuse of technology or adverse online behaviour?

In my role as wellbeing leader, I've dealt with several.

In a primary school setting we've dealt with sexting between students as young as 11-12 year olds.

And, you know that was where I guess I've seen it on TikTok and other social media platforms, images and things like that, and that curiosity and that need to replicate the same behaviour.

So it was really timely to come out and support those students, but it was also around, you know, having those conversations, with the students and the parents around what it means to have pornographic material.

We've had to deal with the fallout of a TikTok video that went viral where someone committed suicide.

As they went to shoot themselves, they videoed it and it was a live stream that went out. Now this was taken off social media platforms, but someone had come along and decided to embed it in, you know those cute cat and dog videos.

So we have year five students that have been looking at these cat and dog videos, and as they've been watching it, next thing it flashes and showed that image.So although that happened in a home environment, the fallout of that is huge.

So that's been something that we've had to support the child, the family and friends that happened to watch it as well.

The other one was a high school setting. So a colleague of mine was talking about cyber bullying in high schools, and so creating fake profile pictures. So a student, a year ten student, had her high school student image taken, and put into a video, which was then shared within the rest of the cohort group.

I don't understand why, but the students had decided to create a chat group of the people in the class and they shared that video and that became a massive cyberbullying incident, because you could just imagine being the student that this video was made, and then shared amongst everyone else and everyone else was laughing and you're kind of like not aware of it.

And then seeing your video and seeing your peers looking at this image or video actually. So yeah, that's just three of a lot of issues that we are seeing.


What are some policies you have put in place to keep your students safe online?

So for our department we do have our policies and processes that are predetermined, and there's a whole entire group that work through those policies and processes.

So what we have seen, however, is they are really, really clever in making sure that we have an overarching umbrella.

So your behaviour support policy, and underneath that we will have things like your cyber bullying policies and guidelines, your social media guidelines, your mobile ban policies. There are lots of supporting documents that can support the students, the families and educators.

Because what we were finding, and real feedback from a lot of teachers in my network, was that with the transition period between the mobile phone ban to actually being full on, you know, ‘It's a ban,’ a lot of the parents were actually having issues with their child not having the phone.

So not only were they getting, I guess, you know, verbally attacked by the students, but they were also copping the flack from a lot of our parents as well.

So it's been really good that that's a standard ban, and our educators can focus more on the educating. And then from the digital platform technology we really take on board the eSafety framework.

So a lot of our advice and content around the digital platform is really looking at what the eSafety Commissioner has put out.

So we refer our staff to that a lot, and I refer to all the content that's on there, because it's really targeted for everyone in the community.

So that's where we have students, you know, educators, including elderly family members as well, so it's creating that across the board approach to support it.