The internet has become the biggest safety concern of Kiwi women, with overwhelming numbers believing they are more at risk online than they are out in the community.
The NEXT Report has revealed that while three quarters of us use the internet several times a day, 60 per cent worry about online safety and security. This contrasts with just 6 per cent who are concerned about the safety of their neighbourhoods.
Martin Cocker, executive director of online watchdog Netsafe, believes these results are a sad representation of the increasing challenges that have come with the growth of e-commerce and the popularity of social media.
“It’s a reflection of people’s experiences; they walk around their neighbourhoods and feel no fear, but they go online and have negative experiences,” he says, adding that many people’s qualms are driven by apprehension of the unknown.
“There’s a fear that because you’re not a technology expert you’ll make a mistake that’s going to cost you a lot of money or have a really negative effect on your life.”
Statistics show our fears are warranted. A 2016 Colmar Brunton survey showed one in five New Zealanders – which translates to a little under one million people – were affected by cyber-crime in the past year. In contrast, almost 73,000 New Zealanders were burgled in the 12 months to September 2016 – meaning Kiwis are more than 12 times more likely to be a victim of an online offence than they are to have their house broken into.
Almost as unsettling are the findings of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS), which surveyed more than 15,000 Kiwis and found 11.5 per cent of us have been victims of cyberbullying, a figure which rises to 52 per cent among women aged 18 and 19.
Perhaps as a consequence of this, only 51 per cent of the New Zealand women surveyed by NEXT agreed with the statement ‘the world is a better place with the great technology we have today’. This in spite of our findings revealing 83 per cent of us are using smartphones, and 39 per cent are on social media daily.
Cocker believes this adversity to electronic innovation is both down to safety concerns, and also the growing body of research exposing the down-sides of technology. For example, it’s increasingly accepted that Facebook has a negative effect on wellbeing – and more specifically, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh found those who frequently check social media are up to 2.6 times more likely to have eating and body image concerns.
While the nature of our fears may differ according to age, overall the NEXT Report showed both young and old fret about online security, with 56 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 59 per cent of those aged 70 plus admitting concerns.
Although it’s generally agreed younger generations are more prolific users – the Programme of International Student Assessment reported in April that in New Zealand, one in six 15-year-olds spends six hours a day on the internet outside of school – many of those NEXT surveyed are anxious for their children or grandchildren.
One of the biggest safety worries is cyber-bullying – an issue which young women are particularly vulnerable to. The NZAVS showed 18 to 19-year-olds experienced the highest levels of cyberbullying (46 per cent), and those aged 20-24 are twice as likely to be harassed online as those aged 30 plus. Among late teens, females have a 50 per cent higher probability than males of being bullied online.
Cocker notes that online there exists “a real exaggeration of the sexism you see in society”; something musician and social commentator Lizzie Marvelly is only too familiar with.
Since she began writing a newspaper column 18 months ago, she’s been on the receiving end of a “cesspit of angst and nastiness”, which at its worst involved around 200 abusive messages a week.
The 27-year-old admits being reduced to tears at the often very personal attacks – some of which came from people she knew.
“I felt really vulnerable,” says Marvelly, who dealt with the stream of vitriol by blocking more than 500 people on social media.
“It has the same effect as walking down a dark alley and seeing a scary-looking stranger; your heart starts racing, it’s really hard to switch off. I was perceiving my device as a threat.”
There’s little doubt New Zealand’s rapid adoption of e-commerce has left us exposed to internet scams and fraud, which are on the rise.
The most recent figures from Netsafe show cyber-criminals fleeced Kiwis out of $13.4 million in 2015 – a dramatic jump from the $8 million stolen in 2014. And that may just be the tip of the iceberg as many victims are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been duped.
“As a community we need to get away from the idea that people who fall for scams are greedy or foolish – those days are definitely gone,” Cocker says. “Criminals can build websites that look entirely legitimate; there’s nothing visual that tells you.”
Happily, in New Zealand significant steps have been taken to protect us online.
In April the long-anticipated Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT NZ) was launched, a government agency which aims to improve cyber-security. And for those who are being harassed, the Harmful Digital Communications Act means sending an electronic message designed to cause serious emotional distress is classed as an offence, punishable by up to two years in prison.
Cocker encourages those who feel under attack to take advantage of what he believes is “world leading” legislation. He and Marvelly also suggest victims make use of the various blocking mechanisms available on social media.
“I don’t think I’d have survived this long online if I didn’t have the ability to block,” admits Marvelly.
And above all else, be cautious when it comes to any online transactions. “You’ve got to do your research and constantly be sceptical – that’s the best way to say safe,” says Cocker.
If you have concerns about online safety, call 0508 NETSAFE or go to netsafe.org.nz.
Next month: We’re more connected than ever, thanks to technology and innovation, so why does the NEXT Report show one in four of us are lonely?
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