Teaching children to protect themselves online

The basics: ‘Children in primary school should not be using regular social networks sites’

Singer songwriter Gavin James, (2nd from right) with students from left; Liam Neeson, Colaiste Oiriall, Monaghan, Lia Grogan, Presentation Thurles and Jason Moore, St. Kevins CC, Clondalkin, Dublin at the launch of Safer Internet Day 2014 in Dublin. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Singer songwriter Gavin James, (2nd from right) with students from left; Liam Neeson, Colaiste Oiriall, Monaghan, Lia Grogan, Presentation Thurles and Jason Moore, St. Kevins CC, Clondalkin, Dublin at the launch of Safer Internet Day 2014 in Dublin. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Tue, Apr 1, 2014, 01:00

The US authorities last month arrested 14 men accused of operating an online child pornography network featuring images obtained from children on popular social networking sites. The men assumed female identities to connect with more than 250 children ranging in age from three to 17 years in the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Belgium. The network has more than 27,000 subscribers.

It’s chilling for parents with children spending more and more time online. “Stranger danger” is an overstated threat and we know children are at greatest risk from people close to home, but when it comes to the internet, the world of strangers is vast and borderless. It’s easy for those with criminal intent to disguise themselves as innocent web users.

Speaking about the arrests, Daniel Ragsdale, deputy director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pointed to a trend of children being enticed into sharing sexually explicit material online. “We cannot arrest our way out of this: education is the key to prevention,” he said.

But how can we educate our children in a world where we are the immigrants, and they are the natives?

The Department of Education and Science (DES) is taking child protection online seriously, working with schools and youth groups to help children take responsibility for their own safety online, not just from predators, but from bullies too.

A recent Safer Internet Day event was attended not only by the Minister for Education, but also by Garda representatives, there to communicate the message to students that the internet is not a safe space for bullies or others looking to take advantage of young people online.

Dr Maureen Griffin is a forensic psychologist with specific expertise in sex offender assessment. She lectures in abnormal psychology, online internet solicitation and risk assessment in universities and on Garda and Irish Defence Forces training programmes. However, over the past two years she has spent more and more time in schools, talking to parents, staff and students about internet safety. The demand for her talks is now so great that she is booked up until January 2015.

“There is just so much information out there that parents and teachers don’t know where to begin, so I try and keep it simple,” says Griffin.


Over 13 means over 13
She starts with the law, in this case (appropriately, given the websites involved) US federal law. “The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act states children under 13 can only give out personal information with the permission of their parents,” says Griffin. “Websites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat are designed for children aged 13 and older. Websites aimed at younger children, such as Moshi Monsters, Moviestarplanet and Club Penguin, require parental permission from users to supply information.”

In short, children in primary schools should not be using regular social networking sites, she says. Of course they are, and in large numbers, because the rules are easy to circumvent. Despite this, Griffin believes these rules should be taken seriously by parents, and primary age children shouldn’t be on social networking sites, other than those designed for their age.

“For a child under 13 to access some of the popular sites, they need to lie about their age,” says Griffin. “The problems with that are various. They are masquerading as older than they are, so those making contacts with them may take them as older. Also, they will be advertised to according to their stated age, and will see ads that are inappropriate. Some children think they are clever by putting their age down at 90 or 100 to avoid ‘creepy’ people online, but they are registered as adults and precautions taken by the website won’t work.

“The age recommendation is there for a reason. These sites are not considered safe for children under 13, and yet I meet such children all the time, as young as first class, who are on social networking sites.”

She believes students should not use social networking sites until they are over 16, when they have a better chance of processing the information maturely. The constructed narratives of the social network page can give the impression everyone else is having a better life than you, she says.

“These sites are made up of images of good times, airbrushed photos and ‘perfect’ lives – young, vulnerable teenagers can come away from that with a very negative view of their own lives.”


Do you know who your friends are?
In order to be bullied online, it often means accepting online “friendship” from bullies in the first place. To address online bullying, young people need to be able to recognise it and have the language to report it. The DES has a classroom toolkit, #Up2Us, to help teachers or youth leaders to work with groups of young people and help them to recognise bullying and deal with it.

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