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We wouldn’t allow it offline, so why put children in online danger?

We must regularly supervise our children’s online activity in an atmosphere of trust, writes Alex Cooney

Today is Safer Internet Day 2023, a global initiative to promote a better online for all.

What has changed since Safer Internet Day 2022? In Ireland, there are developments to celebrate: the passing of the Online Safety Media Regulation Act and the appointment of Niamh Hodnett as Ireland’s first Online Safety Commissioner. Both are welcome commitments to making the online world a safer, more accountable space for children.

As we mark Safer Internet Day, it’s worth thinking about what still needs to change. Ultimately, we need a societal shift in how we think about parenting in the digital age. We must approach parenting our children online in the same way that we parent them offline – the fundamental message of our #SameRulesApply campaign, launched today in partnership with the Irish Examiner, National Parents Council and Accenture.

The internet wasn’t designed for children and their safety is subsequently at risk when left unsupervised online. UNICEF estimates children constitute a third of all online users. There are unparalleled opportunities online for children to learn, create and socialise, however, there are also inherent risks: oversharing personal information, cyberbullying, exposure to
age-inappropriate content and online grooming and (s)extortion. The latter two categories saw an alarming increase during lockdowns. noted recently that 25% more child sex abuse images were detected and taken offline in 2021 than the previous 21 years combined.

A groundbreaking 2022 Finnish study surveyed those searching for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on three commonly-used dark web search engines. It found almost 42% of respondents to their Help us to Help You survey reported they sought direct contact with children online after viewing CSAM. Children are at ever greater risk of being contacted online with harmful intent.

Another significant moment in 2022 was the inquest for 14-year old UK schoolgirl Molly Russell, who died by suicide in 2017. Coroner Andrew Walker concluded “Molly Rose Russell died from an act of self-harm whilst suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”. The inquest heard that she viewed extensive amounts of graphic content related to self-harm, anxiety, depression and suicide on social media platforms in the lead-up to her death. It was hailed as a “tobacco moment” by the NSPCC because of the accountability it attributes to social media platforms for content they promoted. Walker recommended the government consider separate platforms for children and adults as he called for a review of children’s use of online content.

When did it become the norm for parents to feel compelled to give children smartphones in sixth class (or earlier)? We feel pressure from children to have this vital connection to the online world their friends have, when they are arguably not yet mature enough to handle the challenges of life online. ESRI’s Growing up in Ireland study found that 54% of nine-year-olds have their own mobile compared to 44% 10 years ago. Our own annual report shows that YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram are the most popular apps among 8-12 year olds: 87% of kids in this age group had their own social media account, despite a minimum age restriction of 13 on these apps.

As parents, we must view online parenting in the same way we do offline parenting. Ask yourself this: have you ever brought your young child to a swimming pool and left them unsupervised? Would you encourage your child to speak to a stranger in the park or on the street? If the answer to these is “no”, then why would you let your child go online unsupervised whenever and wherever they want?

It’s vital we keep a close eye on what children are doing online. When children have their own devices, parents need to set clear rules and limits, and be consistent. As a parent, model the online behaviour you want to see. Ongoing dialogue around the online world is essential, regardless of age. Normalising discussing online life is the best way to keep your children safe and ensure their experiences online are as positive as they can be. As children mature, they will inevitably want more privacy, but it is important to continue to regularly monitor and supervise online activity in an atmosphere of trust and transparency.

CyberSafeKids demands fundamental societal change to support children online. The burden of responsibility to support children shouldn’t fall on parents alone. We need a much stronger focus on education so that the conversation around risks and opportunities online continues from the home and is supported in school. We also insist that online services – gaming and
social media platforms – take their responsibilities regarding child users far more seriously, and we want legal frameworks that mandate this.

I’ll end with a quote from Anne Longfield, former UK Children’s Commissioner, who said “today’s children will look back on this period and they will see it literally was a time where the digital world was a wild and dangerous place…they will wonder how adults ever let that happen…and will look at it in the same way we now look back and wonder how children were
allowed to ride in cars without seatbelts.”

It’s up to us as parents to take charge and effect meaningful changes for the sake of our children.

Alex Cooney is co-founder and CEO of CyberSafeKids

Published in the Irish Examiner on 7th February, 2023

For more information on our Same Rules Apply campaign please click here

To read and/or download our new interactive Digital Parenting guide click here 

Posted on:

Feb 17, 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.