Internet safety should be made a mandatory subject in Irish primary schools and should even be introduced to creches, the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection has recommended.
Prof Geoffrey Shannon told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs that education guiding the safe and responsible use of the internet should begin at an early age so children are prepared for potential risks and threats, including cyberbullying.
“In my view, education and awareness-raising around the risks – and the opportunities and rights – of children engaging online should begin very early, in primary school,” he said, adding that creches should also be considered, as they receive State funding.
Such educational measures, Prof Shannon said, would place parents and teachers in a position to advise and support children. “It should be part of the primary school curriculum.”
As special rapporteur, his role is to help predict issues and challenges in the area of child protection and to advise the Government accordingly.
The children’s committee met to discuss issues around cyber security in an era in which children are increasingly taking to websites and forums devoid of regulation.
Age of consent
The digital age of consent is due to come into force by May of next year, and will mean children must seek adult permission to go online before the age of 13.
Prof Shannon, who described the internet as “the new frontier for child protection”, is a proponent of tighter regulations on cyberbullying and harassment.
Last week the UK government introduced its own strategy, which would see companies like Facebook and Google pay voluntary levies towards promoting responsible internet use.
Prof Shannon, a leading expert on child law, has argued that existing provisions in Irish legislation outlawing online harassment are insufficient.
He told Wednesday’s committee they should be broadened to include communications to third parties, for example where a person sends or posts content on a victim of bullying to third-party sites or people. This, he believes, would allow for the prosecution of indirect harassment, a key aspect of cyberbullying.
“A strategy on cyber or online safety should be developed,” he said. “This should take the form of an overarching strategy on children’s digital rights”, something that would ideally “empower them to protect themselves from risks online”.
Right to be forgotten
Prof Shannon endorsed a recommendation in the 2016 Law Reform Commission report Harmful Communications and Digital Safety that a mechanism be put in place allowing for the efficient removal of harmful digital material.
There is also the issue of the so-called “right to be forgotten”, in reference to a person’s digital history, which is not provided for in a current Bill on data protection due to come into force next May in line with the EU General Data Protection Regulation. This is another area of concern for Prof Shannon given the potential consequences early internet use can have in later life.
The right to be forgotten was legally confirmed in the case of Google versus Spain in which the European Court of Justice held that an EU citizen could request commercial companies such as Google to remove search links to personal information, given an individual's right to privacy.
Prof Shannon believes such a right is even more important to minors, given their probable lack of awareness of the ramifications of posting material online at an early age. He told the committee that such rights should be enshrined in the forthcoming data protection laws.