Extra caution is being urged after a survey by the National Council for Technology in Education (NCTE) Webwise site showed that increasing numbers of children are meeting with strangers they only know through the internet. One in four of those new contacts turned out to be adults, who had introduced themselves online as children.
The results indicate that fewer young people have rules on home use of the internet than three years ago. More than 90% of those surveyed had home internet access, up 10% since 2003.
The study was based on questionnaires completed by 848 children aged nine to 16, of whom 24% log on at home at least once a day.
The number told by parents not to give out personal information fell from 70% in 2003 to just 57%, while only 51% are not allowed to visit certain sites or meet people they only know from the internet.
Paul Gilligan, chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), said parents need to educate themselves and should not be shy about asking the kids to explain the internet to them.
“We get children ringing our Childline service wondering if it’s a good idea to meet someone they know from the internet, when they should really be talking to their parents,” he said.
“The difficulty is that a lot of parents don’t understand it, especially as it is developing so quickly. But it’s better to know what your children are doing online than be faced with trying to understand when there is a problem,” he said.
Other worrying trends include the fact that 25% of children have received pornographic junk mail, 23% have received unwanted sexual comments online — 9% of them at least five times — and 37% have visited pornographic sites accidentally or on purpose.
Just 27% of children said they had been told at school about safe use of the internet, although Mr Gilligan said this might not be entirely accurate.
“It might be covered when introducing technology or internet usage but young people must be constantly reminded about safety,” he said.
Education Minister Mary Hanafin said it was worrying that parents are often not aware of the hidden dangers of new technologies.
“Parents must realise that allowing children unregulated access to chat rooms and other social networks can have very dangerous consequences,” she said.
Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI) general manager Paul Durrant said parents should report any suspected child pornography to its www.hotline.ie site.
“They should also watch what their children are writing about themselves as there have been cases where children pretend online to be adults and it is the people they go to meet who are quite shocked,” he said.
Useful websites for parents on safe internet use and links to software which will block or filter certain material include: www.iab.ie (the Government’s Internet Advisory Board) and www.webwise.ie