New government research shows more than half of Australians between ages 12 and 17 have witnessed racist or hateful comments about cultural or religious groups online. And amid the pending postal vote on same-sex marriage, the research shows young LGBTI* people are also particular targets of online hate. The results have led to new online resources developed by young people to help them cope. Peggy Giakoumelos reports.
At 20 years old, Jess Vaughan can recount numerous experiences of online abuse due to her sexuality.
"Most of the time, they're commenting back to me when I've commented on something -- generally, if I've commented on something on a political stance. And then I've had some comments back at me, saying things like, 'You've been brainwashed, you're a dyke ...' I could go into the more horrible terms, but they can get quite derogatory. And I have been threatened at times as well."
The issue is reflected in new research commissioned by the federal Office of the eSafety Commissioner and the Department of Education and Training.
Almost 2,500 people across Australia between the ages of 12 and 17 were surveyed in the study.
The results reveal young people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, Indigenous people and youths who identify as LGBTI are the most frequent targets of online hate.
The most targeted group was Muslims, with 53 per cent saying they had been confronted with harmful online content.
That was well ahead of asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians, at 37 per cent each.
Behind them, in order, were refugees, Asians, LGBTI people, Africans, Jews and those identifying as Christians.
eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says the research has led to the creation of new online resources for young people to help them cope with the problem.
"The age most people should be starting social media is 13, but we know there is a lot of peer pressure by young people to join Instagram and Snapchat as early as the age of 12. So what we want to do with the Young and eSafe initiative is to help young people build the critical-thinking skills, resilience and teach them more about respect, responsibility and empathy online, so they can demonstrate those values but so they can also deal with conflict, hate or racism when they encounter it."
The Young & eSafe resources were developed in consultation with the Australian Multicultural Foundation to assure they were relevant to a broad range of young people.
Foundation executive director Hass Dellal says one of the benefits of the resource is it was created for young people by young people.
"It looks at the power to feel, it looks at the power to act, so, when there is an issue, who do you speak to, 'Who could I go to?' (It's about) empowering other young people to actually unite together and actually oppose these sorts of online-hate messages but also help each other to develop resilience tools and ways of overcoming some of the effects these hateful messages can have on young people."
Mr Dellal says the tool also encourages more communication within families to combat the issue.
"I think it's important for, obviously, parents to be able to recognise early warning signs where young people are having difficulty or being troubled. And I think what the tool does is it teaches young people how to engage with your families, and engage with parents, and how to actually go to them for help and support. And, in turn, what that does is help families to understand a little more in how to navigate social media."
Julie Inman Grant, the commissioner, says she agrees parents need to play a bigger role in monitoring their children's online usage.
"I believe that parents are always the frontline defence for protecting their children online, but for also encouraging them to demonstrate those values online, that they'd like them to live as global citizens. So those values of resilience, responsibility, empathy, kindness, civility, respect, we need to be teaching this when kids start swiping the iPad at the age of 3. They need to understand the digital dos and don'ts."
As someone who has lived through online abuse, Jess Vaughan says she wants young people to know there is life after online bullying.
"Everyone tells you it will get better, it will get better. It does, it does. But at that point in time, you don't really want to hear that. Just take a breath, take a step, and know what you are being your true self and there are services out there that can help you reach out. It's not silly to reach out. It doesn't make you any less of a man, or it doesn't make you any less of a woman. It actually makes you a stronger person than if you didn't reach out. So reach out. It's so important."
The resource can be found at: https://esafety.gov.au/youngandesafe/question