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'It's almost like parents are blaming the platform itself': Teenagers have been educating TDs on online safety

Eight young people from Kildare, Wicklow and Clare spoke to politicians today.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

POLITICIANS HEARD TEENAGERS’ perspectives on issues like cyber-bullying, sexting and social media use today – as eight young people from Newbridge College and youth council group Comhairle na nÓg appeared before an Oireachtas committee.

Their appearance comes amid continuing debate over the setting of the digital age of consent at the age of 13 rather than 16 - as is the case in some other European countries.

The issue of use of social media by children has also been in the headlines in recent weeks in the wake of the jailing last month of a Dublin man who exploited young girls online.

Addressing the panel of TDs and senators on the Committee for Children and Youth Affairs, the students from Kildare’s Newbridge College said that families often shied away from talking about subjects like sexting.

“Many of the teenagers engaging in these activities are not informed of not only the dangers but the legalities in relation to the sharing of intimate images,” their opening statement said.

Sending an image to a person you trust may appear harmless but can end “in disastrous consequences” if the images get into the wrong hands, the committee was told.

Detailing their research, the four students pointed out that under data protection and copyright law a person had “the legal right to have these images taken off the internet and if brought to school or the gardaí leaked images can be dealt with”.

This should be stressed to young people so they may become aware to put thought into what the damaging and psychological effects of sexting could be.

Answering questions from Fine Gael’s Alan Farrell, the school’s Serena Devereux said she didn’t believe that preventing teenagers from having smartphones would solve many problems.

Speaking about a French exchange programme she’d gone on last year, Devereux said that 12- to 14-year-olds in the school she attended in France had been banned from having phones.

The problem is – as soon as you get home you want what you can’t have, and banning it is not going to make a difference because as soon as you do get your hands on it, it’s almost like an addiction because you’ve missed out on so much – and you’re hearing so much on the radio about it, you’re getting attracted to the idea of it.

Parents, due to a lack of information, may be blaming the platform rather than problems with how children are using their devices, the student said. Information evenings, run with the help of students, could help address the problem, she recommended.

The Newbridge students said they had carried out a workshop with first and second years in their school this week for Safer Internet Day – covering issues like sexting and the importance of not talking to strangers online.

They spoke to the younger students in groups about the consequences of sending a nude image, Devereux said. They were shocked at what they were told.

“Not one of them already knew the legalities,” she said.

If the young people are shocked you can only imagine what parents would be like.

The students from Clare Comhairle na nÓg, who came from Wicklow and Co Clare, told the committee that changes in technology – particularly the availability of broadband and cheaper smartphones with data bundles – meant that, even in the last few years, there had been major changes in the online landscape.

Cyber-bullying 

Alan Farrell, who chairs the committee, said in a statement afterwards that it would be a dereliction of politicians’ duty not to listen to the views of young people on these issues.

“Our younger generations are more familiar with how people use different social media platforms, what actions can be taken to hide such usage from parents and guardians, and unfortunately, in some cases, they are more aware of the most common aspects of cyber-bullying.

“It is clear to me from the committee’s engagement with these young adults that they have extensive knowledge of the risks of social media. They are also concerned that their counterparts do not fully understand the dangers posed by sexting, over-sharing on social media, and online grooming.

“While social media has many benefits, it is clear it poses a significant number of challenges for young people and adults.

“One young person who appeared before the committee highlighted that 25% of all children have come across harmful content online and 11% have seen or received sexual content. They also brought attention to the fact that less than one in five parents supervises their child’s online activity.

The committee heard the concerns of one young person who said that due to the lack of education provided to young people, the problem of sexting is getting out of control, and there is a lack of awareness among young people of the illegalities associated with this matter.

Read: Irresponsible or realistic: Is 13 too young for the digital age of consent? >

Read: Denis Naughten says banning children from the internet ‘isn’t practical’ >

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