Plenty can be done to protect children online

Children are online from a young age and we must ensure that once a child has access to the online world, their experiences are safe and positive, writes Alex Cooney.

The release of our annual report and trend data seemed to send shockwaves through the country.

From the press commentary, there was genuine consternation that children as young as 8 and 9 could own their own smartphone and be on social media, despite age-restrictions of at least 13 on the most popular apps, and that nearly 20% of children were talking to strangers online every day.

Our data was based on responses from over 5,000 children aged between 8 and 13 so the picture it painted was comprehensive.

We spend the school year in classrooms talking to children so we know how actively they are engaging with technology and how much they value their devices and the access that they have to the online world.

We also know that many parents are feeling out of their depth when it comes to the online safety of their children.

In publishing this data, our intention was not to shock or scaremonger but to get people talking and facing up to the reality that many children are online from a very young age and that there can be consequences to such early exposure, including the loss of personal information, cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content, negative impacts on mental health and well-being and at the extreme end of the spectrum, online grooming and extortion.

As parents, educators and policy-makers, we cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand; we must acknowledge the fact that children are online from a young age and we must do all that we can to ensure that once a child has access to the online world, their experiences are safe and positive.

So what can be done? Some have called for the internet to be effectively banned for those under 16 but this simply won’t work.

Children will find a way around restrictions and more importantly, this approach also fails to acknowledge that there is great value in children learning how to engage with technology in a positive way.

Let’s face it; technology isn’t going anywhere and it will be an important part of their future lives.

The only way that we can ensure that children grow up to use technology in a positive and safe way is to educate them.

Ideally, this education will start at home, with parents setting the tone for a healthy and balanced relationship with technology for the whole family. As parents, we invest so much time teaching our children the rules of the road.

We hold their hands tightly until we know that it is safe to let them walk alongside us and we talk them through the dos and don’ts. We try to prepare them for the time when they will cross the road independently and we have to trust that they will use good judgement in doing so. And eventually we let them do it by themselves.

We need to approach online safety in a similar way by preparing our children for the time when they will roam more freely online.

We need to ensure that they have a healthy approach to technology and that they have an ability to regulate the amount of time they are spending on it.

This might sound like a tall order to those parents who aren’t particularly tech savvy, but it is more straightforward than they think.

As parents, we need to recognise the responsibility that we take on when we first buy our child a device. We need to commit to an ongoing involvement in their online lives, especially when they are young.

This involves making sure that there are good technical controls enabled on the device from the start but also that there are constant conversations around what they are seeing and doing online.

We need to check out apps and games before we let them use them. We don’t need to be technical experts, but we do need to know enough to have those all-important conversations.

There are plenty of great resources out there such as cybersafeireland.org, webwise.ie and commonsensemedia.org. We know that parents come under huge pressure from their kids to get their own smart device or download certain apps and games.

Chatting to other parents can be helpful — there can be strength in numbers in terms of being able to say no when needed. However, you decide to approach it as a parent, do keep a watchful eye on any child that is online. Try to ensure that they are using devices in family spaces rather than shut away in bedrooms.

And don’t forget to model good behaviour yourself — if we’re constantly immersed in our devices ourselves, it’s hard to insist that our children take a different approach.

We recognise that parents are really struggling and need guidance and support, rather than judgement. We have long called on the Government to lead a national awareness campaign focused on parents.

We’ve had successful road safety campaigns for years and they have helped to reduce risky behaviour and negative outcomes.

We need to establish social norms around safe and healthy online use in the same way.

Technology firms also bear substantial responsibility in terms of acknowledging the huge under-age population using their services (we found that 70% of 8-13-year-olds were using social media).

They need to find ways of verifying a user’s age so that at a minimum, appropriate safeguards are in place, including simple measures like turning location sharing off and privacy settings on by default.

Finally, we need digital literacy to be taught in primary and secondary level schools.

We must ensure that children have the opportunity to learn how to critically assess the information they are seeing and hearing online, to value and protect their data, to have a healthy balance between the online and offline lives, and to treat people online as they would be expected to in real life.

There are no quick fixes but there are plenty of things that we can do in Ireland that would make a huge difference.

Let’s not waste any more time talking about the problem and actually start solving it.

Alex Cooney is CEO of CyberSafeIreland, the Irish children’s charity for online safety.

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