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13 October 2021

There are not too many times I can hand on heart say I agree with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but this week I did. When Mr Morrison said the world's social media giants had created a "coward's palace" for vicious trolls and online abusers, I have to say: he wasn't wrong.

The Prime Minister used the term to back Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, whose daughter fell victim to vicious social media trolling and abuse through a story that was by all accounts a cruel lie.

As an elected parliamentarian, I have seen the best and worst of social media. As a father and husband, I have witnessed online abuse and scurrilous slurs too many times to mention. I do believe social media can be used for good to connect with constituents, to pass on information and to hear other views.

As a public servant, I also understand that the bad goes with the good online. I expect to cop a fair bit of flak online. It's part of the job and you have to take it on the chin.

But as a member of society, I am still constantly shocked by the amount of online abuse that seems to almost instantly appear on posts that could never be described as inciteful.

A few weeks ago, my daughter was looking at my Instagram page on my phone when she alerted me to a series of comments on a post from some time back.

The post was a tribute to the victims of 9/11, particularly paying homage to a friend of mine who was murdered in the Twin Towers attack.

What my 11-year-old daughter came across though was hundreds of new comments that were part of a co-ordinated message bombing of my account by anti-vaxxers because of comments I had made about the recent Melbourne protests. This was not the run-of-the-mill trolling that I block, delete or ignore on a daily basis. This was hardcore. None of it is policed and anything goes. It's the wild, wild west.

Some might say the buck stops with the parents and my child should not have been online. But I'd say it's normal for kids to use their parent's phone to look at things on the internet. For parents, its often the far safer option than letting them have their own device or their own accounts.

Every single parent in Australia today is faced with the challenge of trying to protect their children from the online world, while simultaneously dealing with the fact that social media giants are doing everything in their power to lure young people to their sites and stay there.

This week the tech world, governments around the world and the global media stood to attention when former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen gave evidence to the US Senate, as well as giving an interview to the US 60 Minutes program.

Ms Haugen, a former Facebook product manager working on the "civic misinformation team", went public with the social media network's policy and research on content that is harmful to children on both the Facebook and Instagram platforms it owns and operates.

Her bombshell revelations included shocking evidence the social media giant knew its content, particularly on Instagram, was extremely harmful to children, especially on young girls.

This Instagram research showed young women's perception of themselves was being negatively impacted by social media, with 32 per cent of teen girls saying that when they "felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse." Teens blamed Instagram for "increases in the rate of anxiety and depression".

Facebook's internal research showed 13 per cent of British teen users and 6 per cent of American teen users who were having suicidal thoughts could link wanting to kill themselves to Instagram.

It was heavy stuff and prompted one member of the US Senate to say: "The damage to self-worth will haunt a generation." In Australia, a joint investigation earlier this year by the ABC's triple j Hack program and Four Corners discovered TikTok's algorithm was also exposing young Australians to harmful and extreme content.

Whether it's the tech giants or the online trolls, something must be done to stop the pain and anguish being perpetuated in the online world, particularly against children and teenagers.

Lives are at risk and the morally bankrupt behaviour by anyone using the online world to cause pain and harm should have serious consequences.

Labor's shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland is holding the Morrison Government to account on the need for a stronger response to protecting people online.

But we need both big tech and governments to do better, to be ever vigilant in understanding, anticipating and addressing online harms.

And while Scott Morrison, Barnaby Joyce and I don't have a hell of a lot in common politically, we are all parents.

This does not mean we should be more inclined than any other politician to make a stand on this issue, but we have a responsibility to our own moral conscience to work towards protecting all Australians from harm online.

Because whether it's children being harmed, the spread of misinformation or trolling or abuse, we need to keep surfacing the evidence about these harms and keep holding big tech to account.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 13 OCTOBER 2021.