ISPCC: Online safety most important child-protection issue

By Joe Leogue

The head of the ISPCC has warned that online safety is “the child protection issue of our day”.

His stark admission came as he revealed a 15-year-old girl told Childline she was contemplating suicide after nude photos she had sent her ex-boyfriend were circulated around her school.

ISPCC chief executive John Church told an Oireachtas committee that the girl’s situation is typical of hundreds of such cases that Childline encounters every year.

“A 15-year-old female contacted Childline’s web chart service,” said Mr Church. “She stated that she had sent nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend, and when she broke up, he sent them to his friends.

“Now her friends and people in school are talking about her and calling her vile names. She feels really embarrassed, stupid, and ashamed. She said she feels very hurt and betrayed by her ex-boyfriend. She didn’t think that he would do such a thing.

She said she was terrified her parents would find out and scared about how they might react, especially her dad as he is so strict. She said she is so upset she wants to kill herself.

Mr Church said the case is an example of the fear and isolation children feel when something they do online “goes horribly wrong”.

“I’ve only relayed one case example today, but there are hundreds which are out there,” he said.

The Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment met to discuss proposed legislation that would establish a digital safety commissioner, whose office would oversee procedures to remove online content that it deems to be harmful.

Alex Cooney, CEO of not-for-profit organisation CyberSafetyIreland, said the number of online bullying cases has increased significantly over the past decade.

“From talking to teachers and principals on a regular basis, they’re definitely seeing the fallout in the classroom,” Ms Cooney said.

“Children are coming in tired, children are falling out over cyberbullying incidents, or gaming, there’s a clear dynamic.

“I was talking to a principal yesterday in preparation for anti-bullying week next week, and he said in the 10 years he has been a principal, the change has been so stark. As a principal in the early years, he was dealing with bullying, but the amount of online instances that he is now having to deal with is incredible.

Teachers are dealing with this all the time in the classroom.

The committee also heard from officials from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, representatives from Google and Facebook, and from Sinn Féin TD for Cork South Central Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire who has proposed the bill.

Niamh Sweeney, Facebook’s head of public policy said the social media company has concerns about the lack of definition of ‘harmful communication’, but said it would like to work with legislators on the wording.

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