Call for greater protection for children online

Legislation making it illegal for social media companies to use data from children under the age of 16 should be considered, according to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

Call for greater protection for children online

The minister was responding to the vice-chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, Senator Joan Freeman, who called for the legislation to be introduced.

Senator Freeman said responsibility for protecting children online should be placed on social media companies, rather than on the parent and child.

“Can we introduce legislation that will make it illegal for them [social media firms] to use data from children under the age of 16?” Senator Freeman asked.

Responding, Mr Flanagan said: “Yes. I think we can do more in that area and I believe we should explore it.”

Mr Flanagan was one of four ministers to appear before the committee to discuss cybersecurity for children.

During the meeting, Mr Flanagan defended the Government’s decision to set the digital age of consent at 13.

He said the Government had sought expert opinion before taking the decision and a “clear majority” recommend that it should be set at 13.

The Government believed 13 years represented an “appropriate balancing” of the right of children to participate online and accorded with international instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Mr Flanagan said the Government felt that if the age was to be higher than 13, there would be enforcement difficulties. “It was on that basis, having regard to the entirety of the issues, that the age was set at 13,” he said.

Mr Flanaghan said they also looked at international practice and found Britain, Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic had all set the age at 13.

He believed it was important to see what more the Government and services providers could do to make people, particularly parents, feel confident that the State was playing its part and doing its best to make them feel safe.

Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton, said “the jury was out” on whether smartphones should be banned in schools.

Mr Bruton said it was up to each school to set their own policy on the use of smartphones.

He did not believe the current approach to the use of smartphones was a bad one because there would be issues around enforcement.

Mr Bruton said teacher unions had raised concerns about how to enforce a ban but he did not have a “closed mind on this”.

He believed that leaving it to schools to decide whether a smartphone ban was right for them was appropriate for the time being, but the Government was open to discussing it.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said they must link responsibility for child welfare and protection with the provision of services.

“We must embed responsibility for child welfare and protection in all services to children,’ she said.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten said responsibility for online safety crossed six government departments and they needed to communicate and coordinate their work better.

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