Almost one in five children in first class at primary school has spoken to or interacted with a stranger online. By the time they are in sixth class, more than half have experienced cyberbullying, and one-third of students in third class have either experienced it or know somebody who has.
These are among the insights offered by a digital trend report on the online behaviour and experiences of almost 2,300 children aged six to 12. Pupils filled in anonymous questionnaires so, although it is not a scientific survey, it is straight from the children themselves.
The data was gathered and processed by Zeeko, a start-up company in Nova UCD, which aims to help equip educators and parents to teach children to be safe online.
For entrepreneur and Zeeko founder Joe Kenny, the difficulty parents face in trying to keep up with the rapidly evolving online activities of their children is encapsulated in a statistic garnered from a school in north Co Dublin. The 245 children surveyed in this school were using, between them, 145 different apps, websites, social network sites and games.
“What that says to me is that it is a huge challenge for parents to get their heads around all these apps,” says Kenny, who set up Zeeko with his wife, Linda, a year after they had their first child, now aged three.
Finding a solution
In their naivety, he admits, initially they thought the solution to the parenting challenges posed by the internet was technical and something that those with teenagers would be most interested in. But “we quickly realised it had to be educational” and that the target group was primary rather than secondary schools.
Zeeko visited nearly 50 primary schools in 2015, talking about internet safety to pupils, parents and teachers. The “sweet spot” is ages eight to nine, says Kenny, because at that stage children’s online behaviour is not yet entrenched.
What they learned while surveying children and delivering the training has informed the compilation of an internet safety guide. It is aiming to put a copy of the guide into every primary school in the country this year, through a crowd-funding campaign it launched on January 4th.
Through the school visits, Kenny has seen the impact on the ground of the negative aspects of children’s online behaviour. “At a higher, strategic government level, it is not a real issue for people who don’t see it at the coalface,” he says. “For a principal, it is a daily battle.”
Caroline Quinn, principal of Our Lady of Good Counsel Girls' National School in Johnstown, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, is one of those continually dealing with the fall-out from what pupils are doing online outside school.
She and her staff have seen a "massive shift" in recent years in the problems arising. "A few years ago it was children calling each other names; it's not that anymore, it's all social media: it's Instagram, Facebook less so now, and some we have never heard of that the girls educate us about."
The school works “tirelessly”, she says, to try to avert problems through education and then to defuse issues that do arise. “The majority pull with you but, really and truly, the problem is what they are doing when they go home.”
The 464 pupils, including those in a mixed gender autism unit, know they can’t use phones at school. Yet the day we speak, she had to confiscate a phone from a girl who was taking “selfies”.
The child’s phone was confiscated and Quinn will hold on to it for a week, before returning it to an adult, who will be reminded about the school’s policy and procedures on these matters.
At the beginning of the year, parents are asked to sign their co-operation with all such school policies.
It is not the taking of photographs per se that the school has a problem with but with what can be done with those photographs – photographs are put online and “anonymous comments get cooler by the minute; that is what we are soaked in at the minute”, she says.
A lot of time has been taken up since September impressing on sixth-class students that they have to learn before they go to secondary school that there are consequences to their online actions. “But without parental support at home, we are at nothing.”
Due to obligatory anti-bullying policies, schools have been forced to take a lead on cyberbullying and Quinn believes that is a good thing. “I think it is very high profile with schools at the moment and we are doing a good job but the relationship [with parents] is not as tight as it could be.”
The girls in her school know that there is “zero tolerance” for cyberbullying and that a policy of restorative justice applies – teachers endeavour to bring both sides together.
“The girls know we try to repair relationships but explaining that concept to some of the parents can be hard work,” she says.
Pupils are getting very good at keeping the evidence of online behaviour by others that has upset them. This enables the school to track those who are involved but it can be difficult to convince parents to allow teachers to mediate without apportioning blame.
“On our watch they have to talk to each other,” says Quinn. This “gives the victim a voice and can be very empowering”.
Her pupils were among those surveyed by Zeeko and teachers said they definitely felt the children were “calling it as it is”.
Gráinne Kirwan, a lecturer in psychology specialising in cyberpyschology at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, describes the data as "insightful".
She believes that in today’s world using technology, in moderation, and understanding how it works is essential for a child’s wellbeing in terms of social development, educational development and long-term career prospects. But she draws an analogy between the internet safeguards needed and road safety.
“There are rules and laws and a lot of technological advances in road safety such as seat belts, airbags and crumple zones but if a child isn’t taught how to cross the road, or eventually taught how to drive safely, all that comes to naught,” she says. While technology helps, it can’t be used as the only safekeeping device.
“Education and open communication between parents and children is a far more effective, long-term solution for anything that might come up along the way.”
Importance of familiarity
It is important, if children have a dilemma, that they believe their parents are familiar with the online world and the interactions that go on there, says Kirwan.
“You don’t have to be perfect at it, but if you have been online and you know the terminology, you know the kind of places that they go to and the apps that they use, you have a good fighting chance that you will be the person your child comes to.”
Pat Courtney, director of Anti-Bullying Services, and a former national anti-bullying co-ordinator in social, personal and health education with the Department of Education, says it is a "no brainer" that parents need to get up to speed with the online world.
“If you are not familiar with this technology, your children may as well be on another planet for two hours every night,” he says. “If you don’t know the vocabulary and the technology around this, how can you transmit your expectations about their behaviour?”
Courtney, who has been visiting schools giving talks to parents and teachers since 2000, says there is an increase in negative social interaction.
He recommends the Government’s internet safety advice site, Webwise, which covers a wide range of issues, from explaining about social network sites popular with children, to advising on how to use filters and limit screen time.
However, what might surprise people is that, despite the talk of trending websites and latest apps, about half the cyberbulling is done by texting, he says.
Kenny stresses that he doesn’t want Zeeko to come across as “purveyors of doom and gloom” as the internet is a “hugely positive resource” for children but parents have to teach them how to use it safely and responsibly.
“Active mediation” is his mantra. “Try to engage with your child for a couple of minutes every day to see what they are doing online.” It is through open conversation and trying to understand what’s happening, that parents can keep their finger on the pulse, he suggests.
The high level of online interaction with strangers at a young age is partly explained by children gaming with people they don’t know, which is something parents are often blissfully unaware of.
Although it is remote, not physical, contact, there is no doubt that if this communication turns sour, it can affect their mental health.
While the current young “digital natives” are seen as a guinea pig generation, so too are the parents raising them. This is the one parenting issue that he can’t ring his mother to look for advice about, says Kenny.
However, he urges parents not to be intimidated and to “take ownership” of the issues for their family. If, like many a household, your children have more devices and greater access to the internet since Santa came, it’s not too late, he adds, to implement rules around their use.
Tips for keeping children safe online:
1 Keep the channels of communication with your child open
2 Give your child the knowledge and skills to use the internet safely
3 Remember that while children may know how to navigate the internet better than you, they do not have the maturity to know how to behave online
4 Strike the balance between safety settings and giving them internet access, depending on your child’s stage of development
5 You need to make yourself familiar with online trends and to seek further knowledge as digital parenting challenges arise.
For more information see zeeko.ie; webwise.ie; antibullyingservices.ie