Proposed measures to fine parents and retailers if they allow children unrestricted access to the internet are unworkable, organisations and online safety experts have warned.
Legislation prepared by Jim Daly, the chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, will be ready within weeks. Mr Daly, the Fine Gael TD for Cork South-West, had been prompted to act, he said, after the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children told his committee that internet habits are "the single greatest threat to children in our time".
Mr Daly said he is currently drafting legislation which would see parents being fined for allowing their children to own mobile phones with unrestricted access to the internet. It would also mean retailers would face fines if they sold such devices to children under the age of 14, he said.
The proposed legislation is just weeks away from completion and could be debated in the Dáil before the summer break, he said.
Children are protected “from things like sunbeds by law, just like alcohol [and] tobacco” but there was “no regulation whatsoever of what children can watch on the internet”, he said.
Replying, James O'Higgins Norman, director of the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at DCU, cast doubt on "punitive" legislation that would target parents who allow children access to the internet unsupervised .
“I would support the idea of encouraging parents to be more active in their children’s lives online, certainly, but I don’t think legislation effectively banning usage would be a positive thing,” he said. “Firstly, it would negatively impact on children’s tech skills, and it would also push children’s online activity underground. That would make them less likely to talk to adults if and when they experienced difficulties.”
International research suggests that problems with children’s internet habits are best tackled by “education and engagement and not punitive measures that would, in any event, be impossible to police”.
CyberSafeIreland chief executive Alex Cooney welcomed Mr Daly's proposals, saying they "focused attention on the important issue of children's safe use of the internet".
Limits of prohibition
However, prohibition does not work, Ms Cooney said. “We know this from talking to thousands of children and parents across Ireland. We strongly believe that the answer lies in education, not prohibition.”
Parental controls that limit the access children can have to the internet are good, but “they’re are not the solution. Children will always find a way around them.
“Children need to know that if they ever see anything upsetting online that they can go and talk to their parents. Prohibition might just push this underground,” she added.
The ISPCC welcomed the discussion provoked by Mr Daly, but said a national internet strategy including education, law reform and increased regulation, is needed.
Unsupervised internet access for children is not a good thing, although the ISPCC stressed that children also need privacy for some services, including that body’s Childline, which was accessed by 19,000 children last year.
ONLINE DANGERS AND TRENDS
– The key internet risks for children range from sexual grooming and extortion to more common problems such as bullying, peer-perpetrated abuse, privacy violations and viewing inappropriate content.
– Snapchat and Instagram are the most popular instant messaging and social media apps, along with YouTube, according Cybersafe Ireland's most recent report on children and the internet.
– The terms of service of Most social media platforms and instant messaging apps make them available only to those aged 13 and older, although many children are already online before they reach that age, according to Cybersafe.
– The annual report notes that 19 per cent of children spend more than four hours online a day.
– Twenty-eight per cent of children surveyed communicate online with a stranger either occasionally or every day, but this can include contacts on gaming apps, or social media “friends”.
– One-fifth of children said they have been upset by something online in the past year. Less than 20 per cent of parents, however, supervise their children’s online activity, the survey found.
– Two-thirds of teachers said they do not feel sufficiently prepared to teach internet safety properly, although 84 per cent of teachers do address online safety during the normal course of the day.