A major internal case review by the ISPCC has found significant trends in how online activity could be putting children and young people at risk. The release of the data comes as the organisation hosts an invitation-only conference today in Dublin Castle, inviting policy makers, industry practitioners, academics and others involved in child protection and online safety to contribute. The charity hopes to bring forward from this event concrete proposals to inform its work and the work of government and industry in progressing the law reform, education measures and industry approaches that are necessary to keep children safe online.

The ISPCC is Ireland’s national child protection charity. In 2016, it commenced a major partnership with Vodafone which aims to keep children safe by keeping them connected. A key aspect of this work is to shape national law, policy and practice in the field of child protection online.

In July 2016, the ISPCC undertook a case review of the cyber issues that the charity encountered from children, young people and families in the previous eighteen months.

The main issues highlighted in the internal review were:

– ISPCC Support Workers highlighted that young people show a lack of empathy when comments are posted online compared to if they were face to face with someone
– In some cases, children think that the purpose of social media is to taunt and insult others and that this is the normal behaviour online as this is what they may be viewing on a regular basis
– Children and young people in Ireland, some as young as five years of age, reported having unlimited and unsupervised access to the internet
– Children and young people were often viewing age inappropriate, violent and/or pornographic material online
– Staff across the ISPCC had extensive experience and knowledge of working with young people showing high levels of stress and anxiety created by reputational damage from sexting
– Grooming was highlighted as a concern for parents calling the ISPCC Support Line. In one particular case, a parent phoned the service for support after they were made aware that their child was being groomed by an online paedophile ring
– Sextortion refers to a broad category of sexual exploitation which is marked by a threat of public humiliation, an abuse of power and for young people it often takes the form of threatening to release sexual images on social media sites and apps as a means of intimidation. In some cases, young people are sometimes blackmailed for money or asked to send further intimate pictures or coerced into sexual acts in desperate attempts to stop a perpetrator from sending their personal images to others
– The cyber world has added a new dimension to the development of identity for young people. Children and young people have always sought out validation and recognition of their identities but what is different today is how young people seek that validation and the level of exposure online
– Throughout the review, it became clear that a pattern of confusion was emerging for our service users. Children and young people felt unable to control inappropriate activities, they were unsure of where to turn to or how to address concerns. Parents were particularly feeling ill-equipped to deal with issues of safety online

The Law Reform Commission recently published proposals for the reform of the criminal law and a national statutory oversight system, to promote and support positive digital safety. The ISPCC has called on the government to progress this issue, gaining input from a range of experts and partners to inform the next steps.

ISPCC Chief Executive Grainia Long stated: “Evidence from our services shows the scale and nature of online activity by children and young people, and how much work is needed to keep them safe online. Partnerships between industry, the education sector and government will be key. But we must also modernize our laws to reflect the online reality. There is an urgent need for law reform in this area to address the gaps in cybercrime legislation, to improve practice and to afford children greater protection online.

“Cyber safety is the child protection issue of our time; we are only beginning to understand the scale and nature of harm and criminal behaviour towards children online. However, we also appreciate the positive impact that technology has on the lives of young people but our work has informed us that our education system and society are failing to prepare children to identify and understand online risks.

“Children are at risk online – from bullying, accessing inappropriate material and in the most egregious cases, from abuse. Law reform and a range of education measures are undoubtedly required. This conference will provide the stepping stone to ensuring the children of Ireland have our support and enjoy protection online. We would like to thank Vodafone for their support on the issue and for the positive way they are contributing to protecting children online.”

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