Feeling unsafe online? Here’s how to stay safe and maintain healthy digital habits
The World Wide Web can expose you and your family real-world dangers and health issues. Discover what the experts say when it comes to staying safe online.
The internet has indisputably changed our lives. However, interacting with the world through LED-lit glass does come with risks, many of which we’re still coming to understand. Considering how much hordes of potential victims, it’s wise to be informed of the issues. Research by Hootsuite and We Are Social released in 2019 found Australians aged 16 to 64 years spend an average of five hours a day logged onto the internet on computers and smartphones. That’s more time than we spend exercising, socialising or playing with our kids. And it doesn’t include time streaming shows on our Smart TVs.
Without debating the merits of the internet (it’s here to stay), managing any negatives can help us shape our best possible experience of this amazing global mega-brain of connection and information.
While crime is as old as the world, the World Wide Web gives today’s felons instant easy access to hordes of potential victims. Cybercrime affects around one in three Australian adults annually, according to incidents reported to the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Internet-based crime costs the Australian business community around $29 billion annually, while the average loss to individuals is $700 per incident.
The most common cybercrime is online fraud, followed by identity theft. Common online fraud includes phishing (obtaining usernames, passwords and credit card information by posing as a trusted entity in an electronic message), ransomware (electronic messages using trusted branding that infect and lock the victim’s computer and demand a ransom to supposedly restore access) and other types of malware. It also includes investment, lottery and grant scams, hacking, romance scams and sextortion.
Research by Hootsuite and We Are Social released in 2019 found Australians aged 16 to 64 years spend an average of five hours a day logged onto the internet on computers and smartphones.
By being aware and cautious you can avoid being scammed. The Australian Cyber Security Centre recommends never entering your username or password into websites linking from an email — go direct to the official website instead. Be generally cautious when clicking website links. By hovering over the link, you can check the actual web address. If you’re unsure about a message, contact the business through a separate source. Installing ad-blocking software can limit banners and pop-up ads — a common way cybercriminals get you to click on their links.
The national online security watchdog also suggests you keep your software and security up to date. However, only download updates and apps direct from credible sources. They recommend you turn on two-factor authentication on your email, social media, bank and other important accounts, use strong passwords and avoid using the same passwords on your accounts.
The Australian Cyber Security Centre’s Stay Smart Online site can keep you abreast on the latest online threats, advice on how to recover from an incident and more.
Dealing with online abuse
While also common, trolling and online abuse isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Ginger Gorman, a social justice journalist and author of Troll Hunting, blames this partly on the word itself: “The word ‘troll’ comes from Scandinavian folklore and conveys the idea of an argumentative, antisocial creature that makes life hard for travellers,” she says. “It conveys something that isn’t real and isn’t harmful. And that fairy-tale notion is a HUGE problem!” Gorman prefers the terms “cyberhate” and “predator trolling”.
… turn on two-factor authentication on your email, social media, bank and other important accounts, use strong passwords and avoid using the same passwords on your accounts.
Research by the Australian Institute (commissioned by Gorman), found 44 per cent of Australian women and 34 per cent of men have experienced one or more forms of online harassment. Abusive language was the most common (27 per cent), followed by being sent unwanted sexual material (18 per cent) and threats of physical violence or death (8 per cent). “Men experience more abusive language about religion and ethnicity than women and more abuse about political beliefs,” Gorman says. “The abuse against women is more sexual and more violent.” However, women reported more online abuse in all the other categories surveyed.
Cyberhate can include being “doxed” (having one’s private information posted online), intentional damage to people’s careers or reputation and repeated attacks. Illustrating the negative impact cyber abuse can have, one in four victims in the study had seen a medical professional to help deal with their experience.
Those in particular lines of work, such as social justice advocacy, experts on polarising subjects, journalists and web administrators, can be susceptible to online abuse while simply doing their job. Research shows people of colour are also more likely to be attacked online.
“One of the big myths about predator trolling is that it stays online,” Gorman adds. “One journalist in my book had her horse killed and her dog was given acid. Another activist was punched in the street. These harms aren’t virtual, and for good reasons, targets of sustained cyberhate frequently experience ongoing mental and physical health impacts. Some victims describe symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety and insomnia, and require medication.”
Gorman views online abuse as a major occupational health and safety issue. Her book links it to all kinds of real-life harm, including terrorism, incitement to suicide, murder, stalking and domestic violence. In fact, cyberhate and online harassment costs Australians $3.7 billion in lost income and healthcare, according to estimates by the Australian Institute.
We all deserve safe access to the internet, Gorman says. While the onus shouldn’t be on the victim, there are some actions we can take to keep ourselves safer. “Trolls want to hurt and upset you,” she explains. “They are sadists. So, with this in mind, silence can be a great weapon. Humour can be a great trick because it also shows you aren’t hurt or upset.” But if your mental health is suffering, she advises against engaging.
Gorman suggests that another tactic and alternative to silence (which often equates to suppressing marginalised voices) is to harness help from bystanders. In essence this is about enlisting the support of good Samaritans in the digital space to drown the bully out in a deluge of positivity and support for you.
The freely available Online Harassment Field Manual by PEN America offers more suggestions for how to beat online harassment. They include practising radical self-care, protecting your private information online, blocking and reporting abuse to platforms and knowing and exercising your legal rights.
Maintaining digital mental health
While the internet can connect us to people, ideas and images that help us thrive, it can also do the reverse, such as when distressing news stories trigger post-traumatic stress symptoms, or too much connectivity adds to stress, or when social media exacerbates loneliness, low self-esteem and other problems in our lives.
Significantly, today most communication occurs electronically. However, the lack of visual and auditory cues, tone, touch, immediacy and intimacy in the digital realm compared to when we’re face to face with someone can sometimes create problems and deficiencies.
Another concern is “digital dementia”, the notion that our brains are working less effectively because of the volume of information we’re consuming in a digital world.
Jocelyn Brewer, a Sydney-based psychologist with a special interest in technology, uses the terms “digital nutrition” to break down the complex topic of mental health in the digital space. Digital nutrition is about creating a healthy, balanced relationship with technology.
“We’re consuming about 100,000 words worth of information in a day,” she says. “That’s equivalent to a PhD thesis — however, it’s not PhD-level quality. It’s lots of trash and memes and different shares and generally not high-quality information, and that chews up a lot of our mental bandwidth. We’re consuming so much information, but in effect we’ve got the same kind of brain as Cro-Magnon man had 30,000 years ago. Our ability to take it from short-term memory to long-term memory where we can actually recall it might be shifting simply because of the amount of information.”
Digital nutrition is about creating a healthy, balanced relationship with technology.
Brewer suggests cutting your consumption of information. “That comes back to how much time we spend online. Some things might be empty calories and not contributing much to us meaningfully,” she says. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the internet. Developing digital literacy is the key to appraising content. “It depends on your critical thinking, your strengths and personality and resilience,” she says. “What are you coming in with? What are you looking at? It depends on the content you’re consuming and the context you’re consuming that in.”
Brewer recommends what she calls the “Three M’s of Digital Nutrition”: being Mindful, Meaningful and Moderating of what you use online. A fundamental principle is being aware of your own emotional state and how the internet impacts that. “Make sure what you consume has meaning and people that you follow actually add value,” she advises. “It’s about defriending, unfollowing and muting, using all those tools within social media to limit the kind of information and the people we connect with, because we’re attempting to connect with just too many people and follow literally too much stuff.” One bit of social research data suggests it’s only possible to have meaningful relationships with 30 people, Brewer reveals.
“Also, moderate how you respond,” she says. “The online rage is massive because we’re not looking people in the eye, so it tends to give us small permission to say things we wouldn’t say if we were face to face with that person.” Have effective methods for responding to online communications (including conflict). Also log off and avoid the tendency to stay attached to the internet 24/7.
Guarding our physical health
Optometrists such as Jim Kokkinakis of The Eye Practice in Sydney have observed an increase in vision problems like myopia coinciding with the wide uptake of the smartphone. Kokkinakis, a senior lecturer at the University of NSW’s School of Optometry and Vision Science, believes the short range at which we view such devices and blue light (emitted by the LEDs that light our screens) are chiefly responsible. “The intensity of the light emitted from the latest generation of digital screens is far higher than anything we have seen before,” Kokkinakis explains in an educational e-book freely available on his website.
LEDs are high in the blue-violet spectrum of light. Like ultraviolet light, the short wavelengths of blue-violet light can penetrate the eyes and skin and cause oxidative damage, Kokkinakis writes. This can increase our susceptibility to eye cataracts and macular degeneration. Blue light is also linked to suppression of melatonin by our body, contributing to health issues including insomnia, obesity and diabetes.
Kokkinakis suggests using blue-blocker glasses when using screens. These can be worn with or without a glasses prescription. It’s also helpful to turn down the contrast and brightness of your screen. Low blue light emission screens, and (for smartphones, tablets and computers) screen filters, are available from specialist suppliers. Kokkinakis recommends reducing internet and screen time as much as you can (especially at night), taking breaks every 20 minutes, increasing the distance at which you view your screen and using an alarm to restrict your online time.
Another concerning health issue connected with our online life is EMR (electromagnetic radiation). According to Lyn McLean, director of EMR Australia, radio frequency radiation emitted from wireless devices is classified as a Class 2B carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
McLean, the author of four books on the topic, says children are more susceptible because of their developing brains. “Some adults are particularly sensitive to this radiation too, and experience extreme reactions — including pain, headaches, reduced mental performance — from exposure,” she says. Heavy use of wireless devices is also linked to structural changes to the brain, sleep problems, fatigue and attention deficit behaviours, she explains.
McLean recommends buying a meter to test your exposure and establishing wired connections for internet and phones. Laptops and tablets should never be rested on the body. Exposures are highest when the device is downloading or transmitting information, she says. When you can, use the device with the WiFi turned off. A Wi-Se singlet can block wireless radiation to the body. McLean recommends using a shielded mobile phone case and/or an Airtube headset when using your mobile phone. “Don’t use laptop or tablet shields (which can increase your exposure),” she says.
Most health sites recommend increasing the distance between your body and the Wi-Fi device and reducing the time you’re online. For example, text and catch up in person rather than chat online. Also avoid going online when the signal is weak; your device works harder to establish a connection, emitting more radiation. Additionally, check the specific absorption rate (SAR) of your phone. Some phone brands offer more protection from EMR than others.