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An increasing number of children are sharing nude or sexually explicit photos on social media

The committee was told about a girl wanted to take her own life after an ex-boyfriend shared images of her without her permission.

Image: Shutterstock/Don Pablo

THERE HAS BEEN an increase in the number of children in Ireland who are sharing nude or sexually explicit photographs of themselves on WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram messenger apps, a committee has heard.

The head of An Garda Síochana’s cyber crime unit Michael Gubbins told the justice committee that public awareness was key to addressing the problem. 

“There’s an added danger when images are circulated outside confines of friends or otherwise become available to third parties, who may then use them as a trap to engage with a child or set up fake profiles using the images,” he said.

In a discussion about the reform of laws to tackle revenge porn and online harassment, the committee also heard that children and young people would find it too easy to get around age verification for social media sites.

The Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs released a report last year that recommended that a digital safety commissioner’s office could work with social media companies to find a “more accurate system” for children to verify their ages.

Gubbins was asked if introducing age verification for young people on social media sites would help to tackle anonymous social media accounts and cyber bullying.

“You can have legislation that says you must verify your age and identity but myself and my colleagues find on a daily basis, you will have false IDs, passports and drivers’ licences,” he told the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

“People will figure a way around how to avoid giving correct age and they will produce something that verifies an age and an identity.

“If they want to, they will find a way around it.

“Anyone that’s serious about hiding their identity… despite legislation, despite verification, will figure a way around it,” he said.

A teenage girl’s story

The committee was told a teenage girl wanted to take her own life after a former boyfriend she sent intimate images to, shared them without her permission.

The young woman’s case was outlined by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) who take up to 1,000 calls a day from children.

Chief executive of the ISPCC Joe Church said: “A 16-year-old girl told us she sent images to a former boyfriend, who then shared them with others without her permission.

With these images as circulating widely, this girl told Childline she could not face going back to school and was contemplating suicide.

Church said the ISPCC does not advocate the criminalisation of under-18s who carry out such offences and said they should be “educated and empowered to act differently in future”.

“Young people told told the Law Reform Commission in 2016 that they felt practices such as identity theft, online harassment, and the non consensual sharing of intimate images should be made illegal,” he said.

However, we are acutely aware of the need for an age appropriate response to the proposed offences not as outlined in this Bill.

“By their nature, children and young people do not have the maturity levels of adult adults, they may exhibit a greater tendency to be impulsive and they may not fully comprehend the consequences of their actions online,” said Church.

He said a more appropriate response would see them referred to the Garda Youth Diversion Programme.

- with reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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