CyberSafeIreland’s CEO said ‘the onus is on all of us to ensure children are better prepared for their online lives’.
CyberSafeIreland has published its latest report on how children are interacting with the internet, highlighting that nearly a third game online with strangers.
The charity surveyed 3,764 children between the ages of eight and 12 in schools in Ireland over the last academic year. Nearly all (93pc) respondents owned their own smart device and 65pc had their own accounts on social media and instant messaging apps.
According to the survey, almost one-third (30pc) of children have friends and followers on social media platforms that they do not know in real life and 31pc of children have played online games with people they don’t know. Among the respondents, 61pc reported being contacted by a stranger in a game.
CyberSafeIreland said these figures are “particularly worrying” in the context of a new report published by Interpol this week, which highlighted “concerning trends” in relation to the production and sharing of child sexual abuse material online.
Interpol’s report said there has been an increase in the sharing of child exploitation material during the Covid-19 pandemic. It added that there has been an increase in obstacles for victims to report offences or access support as a result of the pandemic.
According to CyberSafeIreland’s survey, 65pc of children between the ages of eight and 12 are signed up to social media and messaging platforms, an 8pc increase on last year’s survey findings. This is despite the fact that most popular platforms set the minimum age restrictions to 13 years old and up and the Digital Age of Consent in Ireland is set at 16.
The survey also asked children if they ever came across content online that bothered them, made them upset, scared or wish that they hadn’t seen it. While most respondents said they had not, almost one-third reported that they had and 12pc said they weren’t sure.
Of those children who had encountered disturbing content online, 57pc had reported it to a parent or trusted adult but 20pc said they kept it to themselves.
Advice for parents
Philip Arneill, head of education and innovation at CyberSafeIreland, said: “We know that asking children to never chat to people they don’t know in the context of an online game can be a challenging message to get across, as many see it as part of the game and entirely normal.
“Whilst we would always encourage kids to never engage online with people they don’t know offline, they key message needs to be about never sharing personal information with strangers online and to talk to a trusted adult if anything or anyone they encounter online makes them feel scared or uncomfortable.”
Arneill said that pressure should be put on online platforms to promote a safer user culture, and that these platforms should adopt a safety-by-design approach.
CyberSafeIreland CEO Alex Cooney added: “Restrictions imposed as a result of Covid-19 have meant that most of us have become even more heavily dependent on our devices. During lockdown, we have relied on them for work, education and entertainment, and this also goes for children.
“Whilst the benefits of technology have become ever more apparent, we must remain mindful of the risks that all users, but particularly children, encounter online and we must do what we can to mitigate against them. The onus is on all of us to ensure children are better prepared for their online lives.”
According to this year’s report, more than half of teachers (60pc) are now dealing with online safety incidents such as cyberbullying in their classrooms, while 80pc of teachers believe that online safety is a significant issue in their school.
CyberSafeIreland said that a national campaign is necessary to provide parents and teachers with the information and support needed to ensure that children remain safe online.