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Children are experiencing real harm online — where’s the urgency to address this?

There is simply not enough government funding allocated to addressing how we can support children and young people to be safe and smart online, writes Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafeKids

CyberSafeKids has been reporting on children’s use of smart devices and their levels of access to the online world since we launched our education programme back in 2016.

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that our overall finding is that while access to technology brings opportunity for children, it is also damaging them. The US Surgeon General reiterated this in May citing the “profound risk of harm” to children’s mental health and wellbeing and called on society to take immediate action to protect children.

While progress is being made, we are still falling far short of adequately preparing children: we must support them to navigate the online world safely and respectfully and also ensure that these spaces are made safer for them.

We know that unsupervised access to the internet creates vulnerability for children yet our research from over 5,000 children, published today, shows 31% of primary school-aged children can go online whenever they want, and 25% have experienced online bullying in the past year. These numbers rise to 73% and 40% respectively when you ask secondary school children.

We are seeing exponential increases globally in cases of online grooming. The NSPCC recently reported that 34,000 online grooming crimes had been recorded by UK police forces over the last six years, with 83% of social media grooming cases taking place against girls.

In the last year alone, 6,350 offences relating to sexual communication with a child were recorded — a rise of 82% since the offence was first introduced and most involving primary school-aged children. Platforms like Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram (all popular with underage children) were involved in 73% of the crimes.

This is concerning as our own data shows that 84% of under 12s have their own social media or instant messaging account, despite minimum age restrictions of 13 on all the most popular apps.

The establishment of Coimisiún na Meán in 2023, the appointment of Ireland’s first Online Safety Commissioner in March 2023, and the enforcement of the EU’s Digital Services Act do indicate that there is much-needed progress being made to provide better protection for users through increased levels of accountability and reporting.

More needs to be done however, by both Government and the platform owners to ensure that online services are designed with the safety of their users in mind, especially as generative AI features are being rapidly rolled out on popular apps, often without adequate guardrails in place.

We need to see a greater focus on online safety and digital literacy education for children in schools. Almost three-quarters of teachers told us that online safety was a significant issue in their school and nearly half feel they don’t have sufficient knowledge or skills to effectively deliver educational messages relating to online safety.

Parents will continue to play a pivotal role in guiding and supporting their children online and we must also do much more to support them in doing so. This should include rolling out public awareness campaigns and support resources.

We are encouraged to see schools and parent communities across the country — such as the initiative on smartphones in all Greystones national schools — starting to take action.

To truly make a difference in the lives of children and young people online, we need the Government to address the existing gap in funding and to seriously invest in more resources to support both parents and educators.

We recommend that:

  • Every child between the ages of 6 and 16 is provided with continuous online safety and digital literacy education in school, appropriate to their age. This can no longer be a peripheral topic in schools but must become a mandatory curricular subject to reflect the extent to which children are online.
  • Parents are adequately informed and supported to be active and engaged digital parents. This will require well-targeted and well-resourced information, awareness campaigns and support resources.
  • The Online Safety Commissioner, and Coimisiún na Meán, are given sufficient powers and resources to adequately hold the online services to account. This must include establishing an Individual Complaints Mechanism (ICM) at the earliest opportunity to ensure children and their guardians can get harmful content removed from a platform in a timely manner.
  • Online service providers should be required to ensure they provide a safe and age-appropriate experience for younger users, taking a safety-by-design approach. This will necessitate adequate age assurance mechanisms to be in place, limiting exposure to, minimising, and removing harmful content and contact.

With the companies operating these often engaging and exciting platforms earning billions of dollars annually in profits, there must be a way of finding the resources to address this spiralling online safety crisis. We surely owe our children a stronger response. (published in the Irish Examiner, Tuesday, 5th September, 2023)

Read our Trends and Usage Report, 2022-2023 

Posted on:

Sep 8, 2023


CyberSafeKids is an Irish charity, which has been empowering children, parents, schools and businesses to navigate the online world in a safer and more responsible way since 2015.