Parents are being warned that it is “incredibly important” they know who their children are speaking to online after research shows that a fifth of kids aged between eight and ten, and a quarter of 12-year-olds, talk to strangers online every day.
CyberSafeIreland said the problem is a particular issue among young boys, with a third of eight-year-old boys and nearly half of boys aged nine in contact with people they don’t know.
While the expert cyber training charity said such contact is not “necessarily ominous”, as the strangers are often other boys playing games, it warned that they could be exploited by adults looking to “meet and groom children”.
CyberSafeIreland called for a more comprehensive and consistent curriculum in schools on digital literacy, healthy relationships, pornography, and consent.
It said one in six teachers surveyed said there are no resources in their schools to teach online safety to children and that more than half of teachers said they are not equipped to do so.
The study said the recent Government decision to make 16 the digital age of consent appeared to have had “little or no impact” as children continue to find it easy to circumvent supposed age restrictions on the social media and messaging apps.
The research found that across all areas — accessing social media, time online, talking to strangers, playing over-18s games, and not talking to parents about safety — there are significantly higher rates among children from a socioeconomic disadvantaged background.
Publishing its 2018 annual report, CyberSafeIreland said six out of ten children aged 8-13 are using social media and messaging apps, despite a supposed minimum age of 13.
Girls are greater users of social media (65%), compared to boys (55%).
The report found that while most children are not in contact with strangers online, “a significant minority” are, including a third of eight-year-old boys and almost half of nine-year-old boys.
The rate increases with age, with 24% of eight-year-olds in contact with people they didn’t know either every day or at least once a week — rising to 42% among 12-year-olds. The report points out that not every incidence of children talking to strangers is “necessarily ominous”.
“It is incredibly important parents are keeping an eye on who their children are talking to online and discussing it with them on a regular basis, and especially when they are young.”
CyberSafeIreland’s head of education, Philip Arneill, said it is “astonishing” that 12% of children are spending more than four hours a day online, or 61 days a year.
The charity called for a national awareness campaign and regulation.