If the internet was an actual place there isn’t a parent in the world who would let their children near it. It is dangerous and disturbing and flooded with pornography and predators using unimaginable levels of deceit to groom and ensnare young people.
Then there is relentless cyberbullying and the increasingly common problem of children unwisely sharing images of themselves in various states of undress, which causes incredible torment in children woefully ill-equipped to cope if they end up in the wrong hands.
But the internet also happens to be the best and most illuminating educational, communication and entertainment tool the world has ever known as tens of thousands of children who received phones, tablets and gaming consoles for Christmas are in the process of discovering.
It is an undeniable marvel but needs to be approached with caution, says Grainia Long, the head of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC).
According to a recent ISPCC report, children as young as five are being allowed unlimited unsupervised access to the internet with many viewing violent or pornographic material. The report highlighted the problem of children being groomed by paedophiles and said a third of all children surveyed had been victims of online bullying.
“This is the child-protection issue of our time,” Long says. “Access to technology for a child is a very good thing. It is an educational and a communication tool and used in the right way can help keep children safe.”
But too often, she says, it is not being used in the right way.
She says digitally native children are skilled at using technology but too immature to deal with its challenges and “not equipped to make the decisions that they need to make. If parents choose to give their children access to a phone or to a tablet then they have an obligation to ensure their safety.”
She cautions parents who bought their children phones and tablets for Christmas “in a hurry in very busy shops” to “take the time now to ensure there are proper parental controls installed”.
Her concerns are echoed by Raj Samani, chief technology officer of software firm Intel Security, who describes the internet as “a world of temptation for children”. He suggests that putting the responsibility on kids to surf safely “is like letting them loose in a sweet shop and telling them to resist the treats”.
Recent research from his company found that only 40 per cent of children are supervised the whole time they are using the internet. “Kids are growing up in a digital-first world and adapt naturally to new technology, which can lead parents to feel intimidated and refrain from enforcing rules that are imperative to protect their children as they surf and socialise online,” he says.
He points to simple steps such as putting the computer in a high-traffic family area and using special browsers specifically for kids and he encourages parents to research software to restrict what children can see.
While restrictive software is one tool parents can use, savvy children will find ways around it. It is harder if centrally controlled hardware is used to restrict access.
Lack of hardware
This was the problem identified by the Irish start-up iKydz, which was set up by two fathers who realised – through their own experience – that there was a lack of hardware available to keep their children safe. So they developed it. Their hardware gives parents control of all internet devices at home and allows them block, restrict or schedule access to social media, inappropriate content, chat rooms and gaming from an app on their phone.
"As parents we have to exert more control over what our children can access and when," says iKydz founder John Molloy.
He cites the example of a child in Junior Cert. "Using iKydz you can restrict their access to particular sites to certain hours to ensure that they do some study. So you might only allow them access to the internet between 6pm and 9pm or Facebook or Snapchat for one hour each day or whatever it might be."
The iKydz box – which retails for €99 – essentially creates a second network in your home. It recognises each device that connects to it and gives each device different levels of access. It also uses Google’s safe search mode to restrict access to pornography and other inappropriate content.
The iKydz idea is welcomed by Long although she says that while parental controls are great, “they are not the panacea and will not guarantee a child’s safety. No product is failsafe and what is needed is good communication and good parenting. It is a hard job but, to make a child feel that no matter what happens they can come to you, is the most important thing.”