Most children aged between eight and 12 now have a presence on social media or messaging apps, with almost one in three saying they have friends or followers online who are strangers in real life, according to research published on Tuesday.
Multiple lockdowns over the past year appear to have led to a significant surge in online activity and a relaxation of rules related to internet access in many Irish homes, according to online safety charity CyberSafeKids which expressed concern over the findings.
Minimum age limits intended to restrict the most well known social media app platforms to children over the age of 13 appear to be having little or no impact on how and when children access the internet.
The survey of more than 2,000 children, published to coincide with Safe Internet Day, reveals that 92 per cent own their own smart device, including 89 per cent of nine year olds. A further 82 per cent told researchers they had profiles on social media and messaging apps.
The percentage with access to social media and messaging apps stood at 68 per cent last year and 58 per cent two years ago.
TikTok is the most commonly used app among young children with 46 per cent, followed by WhatsApp with 35 per cent, and SnapChat with 33 per cent.
The survey suggests that 28 per cent of pre-teens over the age of eight are allowed to go online whenever they want while a similar number say they have been befriended or followed by strangers.
While CyberSafeKids said it recognised the enormous benefits of technology, it warned the growth in use of social media presented challenges especially to more vulnerable users, including children.
It said it wanted to use Safer Internet Day to remind parents, teachers and all those responsible for children that the internet brings risks including exposure to inappropriate material and online grooming.
"Covid-19 restrictions mean that more children than ever are using social media despite being younger than the minimum age restrictions that are meant to apply," said the charity's chief executive, Alex Cooney.
“We’re concerned that there is not enough parental oversight of the content children are consuming, and that so many kids have friends or followers that they don’t actually know in real life.”