KIRRA Pendergast has made it her mission to spread her knowledge of cyber safety and security to school students and adults across the country.
Her program has been rolled out to more than 300,000 students, parents and teachers in the past four-and-a-half years.
Ms Pendergast also trains people in the corporate and healthcare sectors on how to use social media better and stay safe in the process.
She speaks from experience, knowing only too well the devastating consequences of cyber bullying.
She shares her story in the Glove Box Guide to Mental Health, free with a copy of The Land newspaper this Thursday, October 4.
Ms Pendergast is an information technology specialist, but her knowledge of the IT industry was not enough to protect her from what she describes as a sense of hopelessness following relentless bullying and trolling by a former colleague.
“It was someone I trusted who even went so far as to use my work against me and established accounts in my name to cyber bully themselves to try and make it look like me who was the bully,” Ms Pendergast said.
“I did what you are meant to do by blocking them on every platform but mutual friends kept sending screenshots of everything that was being said about me. It was relentless. I couldn’t turn it off, it was a constant thing. I was attacked daily.
“I barely left the house for three months. I found it hard to talk without crying.
“It was never far from the surface. A lot of adults are probably suffering the same way.”
Her doctors advised her she had a form of post traumatic stress disorder and she was diagnosed with two types of autoimmune diseases most likely caused by prolonged severe stress.
“It really affected my health. It is human nature to want to know what people are saying about you,” Ms Pendergast said.
“Words become like knives, and you do doubt yourself. It really grinds you down.
“It was pretty brutal. I tried to get an AVO and went to court with printouts of screenshots but the judge threw it out as it was considered ‘journalistic’.”
That was in 2014, in the year before the Office of eSafety Commissioner, part of the federal government, was established and such treatment was taken more seriously.
“The experience inspired me to start Safe on Social and to turn my bad experience into something good” Ms Pendergast said.
Now she is now director of the certified training provider www.safeonsocial.com, under the Office of eSafety Commissioner, she is based in Lennox Head but travels nationally speaking on the topic and advising schools and businesses.
“I thought if that happened to me and I work in that space, what about young kids, how does it affect them?”
Ms Pendergast shares her advice to children and parents, outlining how easy it is for people to conned by fakes, or worse, preyed on, trolled and bullied.
RELATED READING: Glove Box Guide to Mental Health out this week
Her useful cheat sheets, guides and blogs can help parents navigate the minefields of social media, such as hidden vaults disguised as calculators, or primary school students following fake celebrities who turn out to be predators.
“Fake accounts start to appear when someone popular with young people tours the country, like Katy Perry or Ariana Grande, parents need to know what a fake account looks like” she said.
“We also see a lot of bullying in the celebrity space. It happens a lot to people in the public eye and someone has a crack.
“It’s in the nature of our culture - we have a systemic bullying culture. Even our parliamentarians are doing it.
“And we wonder why it’s a problem with our kids when our politicians validate it.
“I hope to build a lot more resilience among kids and give them practical methods to speak up, no matter how trivial.”
Tips for parents
- Make sure children never identify their full name, address, age, school.
- Teach children to respect people’s privacy and opinions.
- Don't post photos in school uniform. Don’t tag photos of children at school if your account is not completely private. Anyone nearby can search the school on Instagram and see all photos tagged there. If your account is not private, anyone can see photos of your child, their details and other family information. A stranger could use the information to make up a story to convince a child.
- Teach children to keep passwords private and change regularly.
- Make sure apps are age-appropriate.
- Ban devices from the bedroom from as young as possible.
- Respect classification on games.
- Ensure children know to never meet anyone in person they meet online.
How to deal with cyber bullying of children
Parents should determine if it is truly serious, is happening repeatedly, and is it more than kids teasing each other or just being mean once, advises Kirra Pendergast.
“If you can identify the bully, notify the school,” she said.
“Remind your child they are loved and supported.
“Make sure your child knows not to retaliate as their bully is waiting for a bite back from them. By not retaliating they are taking the power away from their bully.
“Encourage your child to take a break from being online to reduce stress and anxiety.”
To report cyber bullying of a child under 18 years in Australia follow these steps.
- Take screen shots of the evidence. Record the date and time they were taken.
- Block the bully on all the social media apps being used.
- Report it to the social media platforms where it occurs. Some sites take up to 48 hours to remove reported posts. You MUST report through this channel first.
- If the post is not removed in a timely manner, and is serious, report it at www.esafety.gov.au
- If it threatens somebody’s life, or there is image-based abuse, contact the police. Get a copy of the report number so your complaint can be followed up easily.