ALISON O'CONNOR: Legislate how our kids use the internet or we will regret it down the line

Children should never be allowed to have unlimited access to the internet, so rules must be put in place about what they can see and post, says Alison O’Connor. 

IF THERE is one issue where us parents could do with a good kick in our collective posteriors it relates to how we allow our children use the internet.

We’re unlikely and unable to administer such a move to ourselves, so this week Fine Gael TD Jim Daly rather bravely stepped forward and attempted the manoeuvre.

He has proposed a law where parents would be fined for allowing their children to own mobile phones with unrestricted access to the internet. He would also like to see retailers facing fines if they sell such devices to children under 14.

Is this not a little extreme? Yes. Is it ever likely to be implemented in the form proposed? No. Crucially though it is bringing some shock jock tactics to an area where they are desperately needed. The Cork South West TD, who chairs the Oireachtas committee on children and youth affairs, has listened in recent months to some stark and frightening evidence on the threats that children face through unfettered access to the internet.

Jim Daly TD
Jim Daly TD

In mental health terms allowing our kids to go online without any restrictions or supervision is the equivalent of standing at their bedroom door and throwing in a pack of fags and a bottle of vodka and saying: “Knock yourself out”. In fact you could argue that after consuming those they would end up with one hell of a hangover from which they will eventually recover. However there are experiences they can have online, or images that they can view, which will never be unseen or unexperienced and could potentially leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives.

It’s a bit of a cliché but if you wouldn’t send your child out to play unaccompanied on a highway why do it with the information superhighway where there are almost endless possibilities for inappropriate and downright dangerous things they may be exposed to.

As us adults know from our extraordinary attachments to our own phones, devices and the possibilities they contain are exceptionally addictive. We get that dopamine “hit” into the pleasure center of our brain and find ourselves on a “compulsion loop”. If it’s bad for our own subsequent concentration levels, what must it be doing to our children and their developing brains?

Jim Daly, who is crafting legislation on the issue, gives a rather good defence of his proposals. What swayed him was the evidence to the Oireacthas committee from the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children that the internet was “the single greatest threat to safety of kids”.

He’s had all kind of reactions after his proposals went public this week one person said on Twitter: “The worst that can happen is that kids see people having sex”.

He can’t understand how if the State takes steps to protect children from alcohol and tobacco it shouldn’t do likewise for the internet. It isn’t just porn he’s worried about either. He talks of a 7-year-old watching an ISIS beheading online or children having access to gambling, not to mention being at risk from cyberbullying and predators.

As well as retailers not being allowed to sell mobiles to children under 14, he would like to see legislation in place where children in a public place, such as a coffee shop, with free wifi, would have to show ID with their age, before they are given the password to go online. At home he says that if a parent gives the child a phone or device to go on the internet, within the house, he would consider that to be supervised access. But unsupervised access would be made illegal.

He wants the manufacturers of the devices to fulfil their obligations by making tablets and phones that have restricted online availability for children. If Ireland sets a trend in this, he believes, other countries might follow suit, as they did with the smoking ban, and that would bring collective pressure to bear on these global manufacturers. The social media platforms also bear a responsibility here and while they have neatly side-stepped state regulation thus far there is a growing impatience among European governments at their failure to show form.

We may have been playing catch- up with the online world for some time. But as a society there is no excuse now for having a regulatory framework which mostly pre-dates the digital era, given how long we have been aware of the harm that it can cause to young people.

It is three years since we had the report of the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group which had 30 recommendations.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten
Communications Minister Denis Naughten

Following on from a Law Reform Commission report in 2016, Communications Minister Denis Naughten said earlier this year he intends set up a new State office to tackle abusive or dangerous content and ensure it is quickly removed from social media sites. If this were to happen, and it is a big if, it would be significant. There has been much needed movement in the realm of digital harassment, stalking and revenge pornography by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

Earlier this week I attended a primary school meeting on internet safety and cyberbullying. I consider myself fairly digital savvy but what this meeting reminded was that as adults/parents we are in the ha’penny place when it comes to having digital nous compared to our kids. Unfortunately ignorance is no defence in this instance.

As parents we have a duty to keep up with what our children are doing online. If they have downloaded something we should know exactly how it operates and whether the settings for that particular app are set to private or to a wider audience where little Johnny or Mary could be sharing their homemade movie, for instance, with an audience, while they, and you, might be none the wiser for it.

The talk was given by John Wills, an expert in the area, who speaks to children, teachers and parents in a school. He had lots of good common sense advice, not least about how we as parents should look at our own phone behaviour. He spoke of instilling a digital culture in our households. This wouldn’t then just be relevant in your own house, but also hopefully when your child visits other houses, where rules might be more lax, but as a result your child is more sure of their own internet boundaries.

On that thorny question of when you give your child their first mobile phone I couldn’t agree more with John that it should be when they begin secondary school. I say that while fully appreciating that it’s easy to set such rules when you are not in the eye of the child-generated storm of “but everyone else in my class has one”.

The digital world is so all pervasive now in our lives, and those of our children, it makes absolute sense for digital safety and savviness to be a full part of the school curriculum. The way things currently are there is a massive gap in learning if you are teaching children about bullying and not addressing what goes on online.

So good on Jim Daly for making us sit up and pay attention to such an important issue.

More on this topic

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