Almost nine out of 10 primary school children use mobile devices – smart phones, tablets or iPods – to access the internet, according to a new digital trend report published last week.
This highlights how constant supervision of children’s online activities is near impossible and underlines the need for them to be taught to protect themselves in the digital world.
The survey of almost 4,500 pupils aged six to 12, across 29 schools, also shows how the age at which children start to use the internet is getting younger and younger.
According to data gathered by Zeeko, a company which teaches internet safety to children, teachers and parents, the average age at which sixth-class pupils say they first went online was 7.6 years old.
But those in first class report an average age of 4.9 years for when they started using the internet.
For parents, it’s the increasing private nature of the access and use of the internet among children that the founder of Zeeko, Joe Kenny, believes is the biggest challenge.
Indeed, the chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), Grainia Long, warned in December how cyber safety was "the child protection issue of our time".
Her comments came as the charity highlighted in its annual review how children as young as five have unlimited and unsupervised access to the internet.
The video-sharing website YouTube is consistently the most popular app among children, according to the survey.
That is TV for their generation, points out Kenny.
It’s very different from watching scheduled television programmes in the living room – something parents would have done when they were children.
“They can go on at anytime, watch anything they search for and it will either be generated by a large broadcasting company or just a single person,” he says.
Zeeko’s digital trend report is drawn from questionnaires filled in anonymously by children and parents in separate sessions.
While it is based on self-reporting, Kenny believes the findings accurately reflect what is going on.
It’s clear, for instance, that older boys engage in riskier online behaviour – mainly through much greater participation than girls in gaming.
Some 34 per cent of sixth-class boys say they have talked to a stranger online, 70 per cent have played with a stranger online and 60 per cent have played an over-18s game.
It is probably no surprise that the majority of children are confident that they know more about the technology they are using than their parents – 66 per cent say their knowledge of online games is greater and, when it comes to apps, 59 per cent reckon they know more.
The parents’ self-ratings suggest they are right. The adults report their own knowledge as “poor” on games and “poor to good” on apps.
It might seem a paradox but Kenny believes this inversion – children who are over confident and parents who are under confident – is in fact an educational opportunity.
If children are taught to teach each other and also their parents, they can very effectively mediate responsible behaviour.
In a pilot project, Zeeko has trained 12-year-olds in three schools to deliver the internet safety message to their peers.
The feedback has been that the young tutors achieve a higher level of engagement with children than adult presenters and Kenny believes there is huge potential in such “empowerment”.
He used to think that age eight/nine was the “sweet spot” for internet safety education – before children’s online behaviour became entrenched.
However, in the past year, he has revised that downwards and is now looking at bringing age-appropriate messages to infant classes and even crèches.
Kenny draws an analogy with road safety, recalling how the Road Safety Authority ran a programme in his son's crèche.
In the same way as we start to teach children from a very young age about the dangers of the road, so it should be with the internet.
However, far from wanting to frighten people about children’s use of digital technology, which is positive in so many ways and an integral part of their lives, Zeeko’s aim is to raise awareness of the risks and make sure youngsters have strategies to protect themselves.
The chances of your child encountering extreme dangers online are probably “very low”, he says.
“But I think people need to be aware of them. But, saying that,” he continues, “predators hone in on the weak and they know where they live in the virtual world in order to capture their victims.”
Kenny was motivated to form the start-up company in NovaUCD in 2013 by the linking of the use of the social media app ASKfm to cases of teenage suicides.
Zeeko’s work since – it expects to deliver seminars to 60,000 pupils, 2,900 teachers and 6,000 parents within the current school year – has convinced him that out of all those in society, it is principals who really have their finger on the pulse of the children’s digital world.
Schools more engaged
“The assumption we had was that the parents would be more engaged and the schools less engaged – it has actually been the opposite.
“The reason for that I think is that every day the principals see the challenges - they see the effects of technology on young people’s lives.”
There are children coming into school who don’t know how to socialise, don’t know how to play with other kids and don’t have manual dexterity skills.
The fact that 77 per cent of primary school children see cyberbullying as “serious” or “very serious” is testament to the success of schools in raising awareness of this issue.
The percentage of children who report that they have been cyberbullied ranges from 7 per cent in first class, peaks at 15 per cent in third class and, in sixth class, it is 12 per cent.
Only 57 per cent regard with the same level of gravity talking to a person they first met online.
And less than half – 40 per cent – think that spending too much time online is serious or very serious.
Some 9 per cent of children say they spend more than five hours a day on screens during the week and this rises to 16 per cent at weekends.
While Zeeko advises one hour of screen time for every five hours spent awake in the real world, that is not meant to be taken literally but is more to promote the idea of balance, says Kenny.
They encourage children to police themselves .
“We give them tangible rules to empower them to do the right thing, rather than parents nagging all the time.”
Laying down boundaries
The key is early intervention and he stresses the importance of parents and schools educating themselves to prevent problems further down the line. It is very hard to change teenagers’ habits.
The rapidly evolving nature of technology also means that where there’s an age gap of more than a couple of years between children in family, parents are likely to encounter a new “digital scene” for each.
So while trying to keep abreast of developments is important, nothing beats “old-fashioned” parenting of instilling values, laying down boundaries and two-way communication.
If the solution to issues arising from use of digital technology is punishment or restriction that’s potentially dangerous for families, Kenny warns.
When young people are at their most vulnerable, they need people they are able to talk to.
“For the want of a conversation, the internet has extreme outcomes on young people’s lives,” he says.
“The dilemma for parents is ‘do I restrict or do I trust them and take a risk – and use any problems that may arise as a learning opportunity?’”
As a parent and educator, Kenny favours the latter.
Ultimately, the best filter is not the newest software but the one found between the child’s ears.
A parent’s view
Angela Guillemet has three daughters, aged six, eight and 11, in primary school and is trying to educate herself about children’s use of digital technology, “knowing there are more dangers ahead”.
None of her daughters has a phone although many of the eldest girl’s friends do. “We are just trying to hold that off for as long as we can – and learning along the way. But I do give them access to my phone and that works quite well because then I am able to take a look and see what they have been looking at.”
Indeed it was when Guillemet was closing apps on her phone one day at home in Foxrock, Co Dublin, that she saw her daughter’s face staring back at her.
It was a karaoke-style, video-sharing app, Musical.ly, that her daughter had been using and of which she was unaware .
“I monitored it for a day before I said ‘you have to come off this’. I realised it was actually the comments that were inappropriate, rather than the stuff she was doing, but there is no way of blocking that.”
Guillemet had a “rational conversation” with her daughter explaining why she didn’t think it was appropriate. “She agreed with me – luckily!”
A communications consultant, Guillemet understands social media but doesn't use it in her personal life. None of her daughters are on social media channels such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
“Sometimes when they are on YouTube, you would worry that they come across things.”
Having attended a Zeeko workshop for parents, she has become more aware of the importance of laying down rules and trying to educate children early on, when they are more open to parental influence than in their teenage years.
“The day that I do purchase a phone, I will probably say, until the age of X, I need to know your password – otherwise it will be confiscated.”
What is her main concern for her daughters? Inappropriate content? Predators? Being sucked into cyberbullying?
“All of the above,” she replies. “I think we are terrified of everything!”
A teacher’s view
The video-sharing website YouTube has a big influence on children and they talk about it frequently in their stories, says primary school teacher Carol O’Brien.
“A lot of their creative writing relates to videos or video games, such as Pink Sheep – things that I don’t know about. The older the children get, the heavier influences the YouTubers are.”
Some children are online watching YouTube videos before they come to school “and they can be pretty wired coming in”, she remarks.
A teacher of fourth class in the Divine Word National School in Rathfarnham, Dublin, she stresses how the internet brings “a lot of positivity” to the classroom.
“It enhances our lessons; we use YouTube videos and websites for teaching in the classroom and for homework. Children in our school have access to iPads and laptops and we use it for project work.”
As regards children’s use of social media, what she worries most about is “that they are 24 hours contactable, if they have the use of a device”.
Also, in group chats, children can feel excluded. Another big concern is the sending of pictures via Snapchat.
“We have had a few incidents in school with the older children – things have happened at home but they have filtered into the classroom. So, everyone has to deal with the repercussions.”
Children tend to feel it’s a “free for all” when they’re on WhatsApp or Snapchat.
“They don’t even consider, I think, that anybody else could see this apart from themselves.”
Pupils who are perfectly well behaved in the classroom and the school yard, she says, don’t seem to feel accountable for what they say online.
O’Brien acknowledges that a lot of parents in their school are monitoring what their children are doing and who they are interacting with.
It’s clear that many of her pupils have parameters around when they can go online and that the home wifi is switched off at certain times.
Her main advice to parents is to set rules before giving a child a new device, to take the phones off them at night and to lead by example – don’t be on the phone all the time yourself.