Facial recognition technology is being used to identify girls who have unknowingly had their images uploaded on image-sharing and pornographic sites, says Childwatch.

The digital child protection consultants says its research shows that some boys and young men upload these images, while other students seek to track down victims later.

Their work also shows that people with a potentially dangerous interest in young children are using these sites alongside teenagers.

The girls are identified through geo-located social media posts and images or disclosure of a school, club name or home address.

“A young person unaware that they feature in these uploads is unprepared and vulnerable if skilfully approached online,” said Childwatch founder Patrick McKenna.

According to Childwatch, the inappropriate use of images is “systemic” and “the perception that online image misuse is focused upon beautiful images of teenage girls in their party dress outfit is misplaced”.

“Many such images feature children so young that they do not yet have a social media page or smartphone,” said Mr McKenna.

“There is clear evidence that some of those engaged in the publication of identities are fellow students often encouraged by other sites users whose true background is likely unknown to them.

Others include people with close access to a child through family or physical proximity and they are particularly dangerous.

“There is no boundary between people who, on one hand, have an interest in very young children and, on the other, an interest in teenagers. These users upload and interact freely.”

Meanwhile, on Safer Internet Day, National Parents Council Primary CEO Aine Lynch said parents should not think they are powerless in face of such online dangers.

“Agreeing boundaries with children, modelling good behaviour, and using technical measures, is likely to be most effective in promoting positive use of the internet by children,” said Ms Lynch.

Elsewhere, Microsoft conducted research on teenager and adult online behaviour in 14 countries. Nearly two-thirds of 13- to 17-year-olds questioned reported being exposed to unwanted situations online, with each person admitting it had happened around twice.

The most common complaint, 43%, was unwanted contact from people, while 20% revealed they had been treated badly or experienced trolling online. Also, 24% had experienced unwanted sexting and 15% sexual solicitation. Others suffered ‘doxing’ which involves the publication of private, identifying information on the internet.

Professor in Educational Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Conor McGuckin, who has co-edited a book on cyberbullying, describes this generation of children as the ‘always-on’ generation.

“This ‘always-on’ generation are suffering greatly in silence,” he said. “Emotionally, they really struggle to keep up with the new developments — new apps, sexting, radicalisation among other issues. We are very concerned about the mental health and well-being of these youngsters.”

Prof McGuckin also warned that, in the future, children could be bullied via artificial intelligence.

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