Communication has been transformed by the digital age and the pace of change.
is such that even the most tech-savvy parents find it hard to stay abreast of what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to their kids’ use of social media. Just when you’ve got one App figured, another comes along, and the process of staying one step ahead begins all over again.
It’s no wonder parents are feeling overwhelmed, says John Sharry, founder of charity Parents Plus. Dr Sharry, a social worker and child and family psychotherapist, says the best approach for parents considering letting their children set up a social media profile is to “be in there from the start”, even though it’s “very easy to just let things slide”.
“You need to be in there early. And you should try to focus on core positive rules,” he says. The first thing to recognise is that technology is “not all bad”. It offers plenty of educational and leisure opportunities. It can be a forum for parents to connect with children through playing games together or watching movies.
“But equally, there are dangers,” Dr Sharry says.
They include inappropriate access to the internet, over-sharing personal information online, including intimate images, and the danger of being contacted inappropriately while online.
There’s also the risk of overuse of technology leading to addictive behaviour — a survey by market research company iReach Insights, published this week, found almost two-thirds of those whose kids had a smartphone believe their child is addicted to it. More than four in five feel smartphones should offer more settings to protect children and teens.
The clamour for added protection grew this week against the backdrop of a court case that would strike terror in the heart of any parent whose child is active online. The case of Matthew Horan, the 26-year-old Dubliner who pleaded guilty to sexually exploiting children online, using Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, musical.ly and Kik to send and receive child porn images from six identified child users in Ireland, is the stuff of parental nightmare.
A forensic examination of Horan’s computer uncovered recorded Skype calls between him and two nine-year-old girls, which included footage of the girls engaging in sexual acts.
Horan also engaged in sexually explicit text conversations with the girls, during which there would be an exchange of photos.
Horan, of St John’s Crescent, Clondalkin, also threatened to share an 11-year-old girl’s nude images to her social media if she didn’t send him more graphic photos.
Even though the girl threatened to kill herself, Horan continued to coerce her to send more images. Yesterday, he was given a nine-and-a-half year prison sentence, with the final two years suspended.
The details of the Horan case are shocking, particularly the revelation that a child threatened to kill herself because she didn’t have the tools to cope with a sexual predator. What child does?
But what the case also highlights is how easy it seems for strangers to make contact with our children, and how unaware we can remain.
Horan’s activities did not come to light on foot of parental vigilance. It was thanks to US authorities that Horan was eventually picked up. They contacted gardaí about an email account being used to share child porn and investigators tracked the account to Horan.
The case raises many questions. How does a stranger manoeuvre himself into a position where he is able to persuade/ coerce young girls to engage in sexual acts on his behalf? How does he get in contact with them in the first place? How does he get them to share inappropriate photos?
How does he get them to take inappropriate photos? Why did these children not confide in their parents? How are kids able to engage in this kind of online activity in the first place? How do we protect our own children from similar online predators?
What are the tech companies doing to ensure their safety?
The social media giants behind the apps mentioned in this court case argue that they take online safety very seriously.
Kik said it does this by constant improvements to the product and by encouraging users to report content they believe violates the Kik terms of service.
Kik said users are able to block those they don’t wish to chat with. It says it has invested €8m over 18 months and has “a safety advisory board to help shape our safety strategy”.
At the end of the day though, Kik is basically a chat room where users can send anonymous messages via user names. And even though the lower age limit to create an account is 17, there is no age verification system. So if a child lies about their age, who will know?
And because the lower age limit is 17, there are no parental control features.
Microsoft, who designed the Skype software, said its Skype websites and software “are not intended for or designed to attract users under the age of 13”.
It says it has measures in place to help protect children from being contacted by strangers, including only allowing people in the child’s contact list to contact the child using Skype, and hiding the age, date of birth and gender of children on profile pages.
However, as the security measures are based on the date of birth provided by the person creating a profile, all a child has to do is create a fake date of birth to circumvent these measures.
A spokesperson for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, said they have “zero tolerance for child exploitation”.
“When detected, our teams ensure that any offending content is immediately removed and reported to the relevant authorities. We also work closely with An Garda Síochána, in particular the Cybercrime Unit. In addition, we work with safety experts to develop powerful tools to combat this kind of activity and we have a global team responding around the clock to reports from our community.”
Snapchat says it has a “dedicated trust and safety team that works around the clock to review abuse reports and take action when they become aware of a violation”.
However, like Kik, Skype and Instagram, while they say no one under 13 is allowed to create an account or use the services, and new users are required to provide an age when they register there doesn’t appear to be an age-verification system when you register initially.
At any rate, research shows that children are getting around the age requirements. A 2015 Dublin Institute of Technology study found that just under 40% of 11 and 12-year-olds have a social networking profile, despite age restrictions.
It’s not possible to police our children’s online behaviour all of the time, but we can lay some ground rules, Dr Sharry says. These can include limiting screen time; banning screens at mealtime, often the only time families sit down together; no technology in the bedroom, phones collected and left downstairs.
“Lots of parents say ‘we don’t have any rules and it’s got really bad and out of hand and how do we get back control?’
“Well you can. It’s just about taking a gradual, clear approach. Have a family meeting, tell them technology is disrupting family life and consult them about what needs to be done. You don’t have to agree everything with them first time,” Dr Sharry says.
“Once you check things with them, once you educate and inform they can see the sense in not using phones at mealtimes, and recognise that maybe it does affect sleep at night.” Much of the conflict is avoidable if rules are in place ahead of the technology.
Dr Sharry says the trick is “don’t give them everything at once”. At first, the parent should keep the password to themselves so that the child has to come to them in order to use the technology. Once they’ve shown themselves to be responsible, the password can be shared with the child, but with the caveat that the parent has permission to check their online activity.
“And that’s the agreement from the start. It takes out all the issues of risk,” Dr Sharry says.
Ultimately, never give access to technology unless you’ve explored all the safety issues with them, he says.
It’s important to discuss what they would do if contacted inappropriately, either by peers or a stranger. Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council — Primary, says children are sometimes afraid of going to their parent about things that concern them online for fear of the repercussions, principally that their parents would ban them from using the internet.
In an interview on webwise.ie, the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre, based at Dublin City University, Ms Lynch says the key is to not just talk to your children about the internet, but to also listen to them, what they enjoy about it, what their concerns are. The parent can then introduce their own concerns and they can agree rules which “give clarity to both sides”.
The bottom line is, the internet is now a big part of children’s lives, Ms Lynch says. And as Dr Sharry says: “You can’t say ‘no’ forever. You don’t want your kids to feel excluded. You need to learn about the technology with them. You need to have that safety conversation.”
Parents should have regard to their child’s age, however, when granting access. Dr Sharry says parents “would never leave an 11-year-old child wander into the city centre at night, but they do let them wander around YouTube and Skype”.
Cyberpsychologist, Mary Aiken, adviser to Europol’s Cyber Crime Centre, has questioned why the digital age of consent in Ireland is set to be so much lower than the age a young person must be to make decisions about their physical health.
The age of consent for medical procedures is 16. Yet from May 25, when the EU General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect, the digital age of consent will be 13 — the age from which it will be legal for data controllers to hold data — name, address, screen name, phone number, geolocation data, video and audio files — gathered from minors. Parental consent will be required up to the age of 13.
“If an Irish child cannot make a decision on something that could impact on their physical health, how could they possibly make a decision on something that could impact on their mental health?” she said. Dr Aiken has described the internet as “an adult environment — there is no shallow end of the swimming pool online”.
He also emphasises the importance of communication: “Having the tech talk now is almost more difficult than having the sex talk with your kids. The birds and the bees talk is one and done. The tech talk needs to happen almost once a year because of new technology and new apps.”