ISPCC warning: ‘Cyber safety is the child protection issue of our time’

13 Dec 2016

The ISPCC case report shows a world of stress and anxiety for young people, and parents unable to navigate them through the online world. Image: Kylie Walls/Shutterstock

Bullying, abuse, porn, sextortion, public humiliation and grooming are just some of the issues that children as young as five are witnessing – mostly unsupervised – in the online world, the ISPCC has warned.

In new data issued in time for a conference at Dublin Castle today (13 December), in partnership with Vodafone, the ISPCC has painted a damning picture of child protection online in Ireland in 2016.

Support workers have found that young people are showing a lack of empathy when comments are posted online compared to being face-to-face with someone.

They found that some children think the purpose of social media is to taunt and insult others and that this is normal behaviour.

‘Children are at risk online – from bullying, accessing inappropriate material and in the most egregious cases, from abuse. Law reform and a range of education measures are undoubtedly required’

ISPCC frontline support workers say children as young as five have unlimited and unsupervised access to the internet and that many young people are often viewing age-inappropriate, violent and pornographic material online.

Stress and anxiety

Staff across the ISPCC had extensive experience and knowledge of working with young people showing high levels of stress and anxiety created by reputational damage from sexting.

Grooming was highlighted as a concern for parents calling the ISPCC support line. In one particular case, a parent phoned the service after they were made aware that their child was being groomed by an online paedophile ring.

Sextortion refers to a broad category of sexual exploitation that is marked by a threat of public humiliation and an abuse of power. For young people, it often involves threatening to release sexual images on social media sites and apps as a means of intimidation.

In some cases, young people are sometimes blackmailed for money, asked to send further intimate pictures or coerced into sexual acts in desperate attempts to stop a perpetrator from sending their personal images to others.

The ISPCC case review paints a frightening picture of how young people are seeking out validation and recognition of their identities in this dangerous online world.

However, parents are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the issues of safety online.

Modernisation of laws a priority

The Law Reform Commission recently published proposals for the reform of the criminal law and a national statutory oversight system, to promote and support positive digital safety.

The ISPCC has called on the government to progress this issue, gaining input from a range of experts and partners to inform the next steps.

In September, the ISPCC warned that as a society, we are only beginning to understand the nature of harm and criminality towards children online.

“Evidence from our services shows the scale and nature of online activity by children and young people, and how much work is needed to keep them safe online,” ISPCC CEO Grainia Long said.

“Partnerships between industry, the education sector and government will be key. But we must also modernise our laws to reflect the online reality. There is an urgent need for law reform in this area to address the gaps in cybercrime legislation, to improve practice and to afford children greater protection online.

“Cyber safety is the child protection issue of our time; we are only beginning to understand the scale and nature of harm and criminal behaviour towards children online. However, we also appreciate the positive impact that technology has on the lives of young people but our work has informed us that our education system and society are failing to prepare children to identify and understand online risks.

“Children are at risk online – from bullying, accessing inappropriate material and in the most egregious cases, from abuse. Law reform and a range of education measures are undoubtedly required,” Long said.

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