To help inform that inquiry, AHISA recently surveyed its members on how school leaders perceive the issue, its effect on schools and how schools are responding. 

One of the most important results of the survey has been to reveal the extent to which schools are already proactive in protecting students from the potential harm of pornography. The survey also reveals that principals believe there is more governments can – and should – do to help.

Schools are limiting the possibility of accidental or deliberate exposure to inappropriate websites through multiple strategies, including the application of internet filters and banning mobile phone use during school hours. In addition, 98 per cent of principals surveyed reported their school had an ‘Acceptable Use’ agreement with students governing students’ access to the school’s online environment and most (93 per cent) reported that their school monitored student internet activities on all digital devices used in class.

A third reported their school also monitors students’ personal mobile devices if an incident is reported or there is cause for concern. As well as having preventive measures in place, more than three-quarters of heads said their school directly educates students about issues relating to pornography, including its potential to distort students’ understanding of intimacy and the nature of sexual relationships.

While most schools first specifically address these issues when students are in Year 7, nearly a third do not begin until students are in Years 9 or 10 – an age that research suggests is far too late.

Just over half of principals in the survey reported they directly address the issue of student access to pornography with parents. This is via information evenings, guest speaker events or in school newsletter articles. Schools also advise parents if their child is discovered accessing pornography at school or if the school becomes aware of an outside-of-school issue.

Clearly, the ease of access to online pornography and other inappropriate material by students and the potential for harmful effects are issues schools are taking very seriously and working hard to counter, but they need help.

Principals reported a number of difficulties schools face in their attempts to protect students, including the increasing expectation of parents that they will be able to contact their children throughout the school day via their mobile phones and the difficulty of monitoring students’ mobile devices that are not linked to the school’s wireless network. 

Principals also noted the difficulty of establishing and sustaining adequate safeguards when digital technologies are evolving so rapidly. 

These issues are common to most schools and it is not surprising that principals indicated they would find it useful if a template of policies/protocols and age-appropriate resources were developed by a government agency such as the Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner to assist schools to address student access to online pornography and its repercussions.

Access to online pornography is just one part of the problem that principals see playing out in schools. The increase in ‘sexting’ and, more generally, the early sexualisation of children are issues principals describe as affecting the welfare of students. Principals want classifications of films, television programs, magazines and video/computer games to be tightened, especially for the G, PG and M ratings, and codes of practice for advertising, television programming and children’s magazines and merchandise to be strengthened.

Australian Communications and Media Authority data shows that as at June 2015, 86 per cent of Australia’s teenagers had home broadband access and 80 per cent used a smartphone. When so many young Australians potentially have 24/7 access to the cyber world, schools cannot be the only line of defence in maintaining children’s cyber safety.

Parents and governments must play their part, too.