Why is Ireland sweeping digital education under the carpet?

30 Apr 2018

Image: Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock

The debate over the age of consent for access to digital services distracts from the fact that we all need a balanced education on technology, argues John Kennedy.

This morning (30 April), I learned the sad news of the passing of Rick Dickinson, the designer of the iconic Sinclair personal computers of the 1980s, including the ZX80 and ZX81 and the Bauhaus-inspired Sinclair Spectrum.

This brought back a rush of memories of a Christmas when my dad, on his own volition, insisted on the family investing in our first computer, the Sinclair Spectrum 48K, which used tapes as a means of relaying data. I can’t look at one of those machines without feeling a wave of nostalgia.

His motive was to ensure that his children were positioned to take advantage of the next upheaval or revolution in technology, and my early childhood and teens were a grounding in the basics of computing and coding, with a lot of syntax errors and swear words thrown in. His investment paid off because the digital revolution has informed the entirety of my adult career so far.

I always considered myself lucky to be around to witness the start of new things – the first personal computers, modems, internet connections and mobile phones; the onset of text messaging and e-commerce; the first smartphones; social media; VR, AR and the internet of things; drones and self-driving cars – it goes on and on. And I relish and love every damn second and fresh new insight.

But this digital revolution hasn’t always been about shiny boxes and lights.

For all the shiny chrome iPhone reveals, and new ways of connecting around our planet, there has been shock and sorrow, too.

I marvel at humanity’s ability to add ugliness and harm to things that should be progressive.

Sadly, the internet and smartphones have brought with them the spectre of horrible things, ranging from child abuse material to bullying, suicide and God knows what else.

There is hardly a crime you read or hear about today that doesn’t involve some element of technology, whether it is a part of the story or the means by which the story was captured.

In some ways, this hurries the advance of technology into our lives, either welcome or intrusive; in others, it limits possibilities for the more progressive potential of technology.

The most recent intrusion – the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that has engulfed Facebook and may have played a role in the Brexit referendum and the election of US president Donald Trump – is a case in point.

Instead of growing up gracefully with technology as we should, we are being violently shook into the dark realities of a digital age.

Innocence in the age of consent

But what is the appropriate way to grow up in a digital age? How young should children be before they can access smartphones? How involved should their parents be? How much do kids tell their parents about what is happening in their digital lives?

Hardly a week goes by that you don’t hear about bullying over smartphones and on social networks. Sadly, you also often hear about suicides, and there are few parents I know who don’t despair when they see the blue glow from the bedroom where their child should be asleep.

Often on radio shows, I am asked what is the right approach. I often reply that it is important that parents create an atmosphere where kids feel it is OK to say what is going on.

Increasingly, I think these words ring hollow because I am not yet a parent and I do know that kids will not tell their parents everything. But I am an uncle to three beautiful nieces, two of whom are teenagers, all in a hurry to grow up but also get their hands on the latest technologies.

I worry for them. My introduction to technology was gradual. Theirs is a full-on, in-your-face battery of phones, apps and disappearing social media posts and Snap messages, and I hope they are OK and not on the receiving end of bullying or worse.

Every week, it seems a radio show reveals how a reporter masquerading as a 13-year-old girl is shocked by the attention and advances by grown men on these online platforms.

Ireland is currently in the midst of a debate around the age of consent for the access to services by young people without parental consent.

The Irish Government’s Cabinet has agreed that the digital age of consent for access to services without parental approval should be set at 13. The decision is part of the planned legislation for harmonising Irish law with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May.

There are arguments that this age of consent is too young.

In recent weeks, the director of the Cyberpsychology Research Network, Dr Mary Aiken, warned that the age of 13 for digital consent selected by the Irish Government is too low and leaves youngsters open to malicious and manipulative psychological targeting.

Successful entrepreneur Dylan Collins, CEO of child-safe digital ads network SuperAwesome, backed Aiken’s warning. Collins believes the Government needs to reconsider setting the digital age of consent as low as 13 when Germany is setting the age limit at 16, France at 15 and China, where the digital age of consent is a new concept, is opting for 14.

In response to questions from Siliconrepublic.com, Collins said: “The challenge is that the internet was fundamentally built for adults but is now being used by an overwhelming number of kids. There are almost 10 times as many kids online as there were seven years ago.”

He added: “It’s really hard to be a parent within a digital home. Please be mindful that when your children are using adult platforms like Facebook and YouTube, huge amounts of their personal information may be getting captured and shared with other companies.”

In light of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, Collins has a point.

Just like with sex education, we cannot ignore digital education

The key is that kids need a balanced introduction to technology that equips them for the future and protects them online, without holding them back.

Some schools in Ireland have banned smartphones from the premises, but not tablet devices. So, how do we achieve balance?

Harry McCann of the Digital Youth Council argues that going the other direction and raising the digital age of consent to 16 years old will only sweep the problem under the carpet and leave young people at a greater risk online. He believes we must focus on developing the digital education and literacy of parents and their children rather than banning young people from going online.

In a recent story in The Irish Times, McCann opined that Ireland as a society has failed to educate children responsibly about technology.

“I’m only a year out of school and I can tell you this education was not provided to me. It’s not that young people don’t care about their privacy, they don’t understand the repercussions of what happens when you post a personal photo or information online.”

Balanced education, McCann professed, is the key.

“Irish society has a very unhealthy relationship with technology and it’s playing a big part in how people are unsafe online. I believe that by sweeping this problem under the carpet, we are failing to prepare young people on one of the greatest threats they face in 21st-century Ireland, which is the online world. If they go online unprepared, they’re in danger.”

Just like with sex education, Ireland can no longer avoid digital technology.

The issue isn’t solely about the age of consent. The issue is how we are preparing society – it begins with the students and their teachers – for the realities and dangers of an increasingly online world.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years