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Dr Catherine Conlon We need to get real about the dangers of smartphone use by young children

The public health expert says we cannot continue to sleep-walk our children into unregulated smartphone use.


FOLLOWING A RECENT survey, that astoundingly found almost one in four (24%) of Irish six-year-olds have their own smartphone, Education Minister Norma Foley met with leaders and decision makers of Ireland’s social media, technology and smartphone companies to progress work to keep children and young people safe online.

The survey carried out by the polling firm Amárach earlier this month, questioned 900 parents of children aged 5 to 17 on behalf of Irish charity CyberSafeKids.

It found that over half (52%) of parents do not feel confident about how to teach children how to stay safe on the internet.

It gets worse.

Almost half (45%) of 10-year-olds are allowed to use smartphones in their bedrooms. Just over one in four parents (28%) use parental controls and only one in five (20%) felt the good the internet could bring their children outweighed the risks.

Who is responsible?

Supervision is relaxed at weekends and holidays, with four out of five parents of children aged 11 with smartphones saying their children’s internet is only sometimes or never supervised.

Think of a smartphone like a loaded gun – would you allow your 6-year old to go to sleep with a smartphone under their pillow?

Chief Executive of CyberSafeKids, Alex Cooney said the recent survey identified a ‘worrying gap between children’s access and their parent’s ability to support them to be safe online.’

The Minister met with representatives from companies including Meta, Google, Microsoft, TikTok, Three, Vodafone and Tesco. Items under discussion included the introduction of a robust age verification system to ensure that social media services are not used by children under the age of 13 and the attitude of mobile phone providers to her department’s smartphone policy.

Also discussed were the effectiveness of controls in place to prevent access to harmful and inappropriate content, the risk of children being duped by adults impersonating other children into sending inappropriate images online, the potential harm caused by the use of filters on social media services, and the speed of takedown procedures.

The meeting followed Minister Foley’s launch last November of guidelines to support primary school parents and parent associations to create and implement codes around smartphone use among primary school children.

‘I’m very conscious that social media services have an age limit of 13 in place but I know from engaging with parents and schools that there are children much younger than that using social media. We need to have a robust system of age verification put in place and I am heartened by the fact that Coimisiún na Meán is examining this matter in its draft online code.’

In response to whether the mobile phone services providers present at the meeting supported the principle of parents not buying smartphones for their children while in primary school, the answer was all too predictable. ‘That wasn’t forthcoming at this point in time, but they gave a commitment to engage again on this matter,’ the Minister said.

What are the dangers?

Perhaps I am being overly dramatic in terms of what young children are actually seeing online. So what does the evidence say?

A paper published by the UK Children’s Commissioner last year made very clear the urgent need to protect children from the harms of online pornography. The report does not make for easy reading but the Commissioner says, ‘nor should it.’

I truly believe that we will look back in 20 years and be shocked by the content to which children were exposed.

‘Let me be absolutely clear: online pornography is not equivalent to ‘top-shelf’ magazine. The adult content which parents may have accessed in their youth could be considered ‘quaint’ in comparison to today’s world of online pornography. Depictions of degradation, sexual coercion, aggression and exploitation are commonplace and disproportionately targeted against teenage girls.

The report drew together research from focus groups with teenagers aged 13-19 and a survey of 1,000 young people aged 16-21. It found that the average age at which children first see pornography is 13. By age nine, 10% had seen pornography, one in four (27%) had seen it by age 11 and half of children had seen pornography by age 13.

Young people are frequently exposed to violent pornography and the majority (79%) had encountered violent pornography before the age of 18 with frequent users of pornography found to be more likely to engage in physically aggressive sex acts.

The researchers reported that pornography is not confined to dedicated adult sites. Twitter (now X) was the online platform where young people were most likely to have seen pornography. Other mainstream social networking platforms Instagram and Snapchat ‘rank closely after dedicated pornography sites.’

The new UK Online Safety Bill introduced in the UK last year mandates age verification that ensures that all international platforms with UK users will have to stop minors from accessing ‘harmful’ content as defined by the UK parliament.

Writer and psychotherapist Richard Hogan has started a petition urging that the Government introduce regulations for the tech industry. In an interview with The Hard Shoulder, he emphasised that this is a ‘serious issue.’

‘Last year I worked in a school where a senior infant consumed hardcore, extreme material.

‘This is not satiating a normal sexual curiosity – because that’s normal – this is hardcore.’

In terms of children being online he said that companies ‘absolutely need our children on it to garner revenue – the more trafficking, the more they’re consuming the stuff, the more extreme it is, the more they watch it, and it just drives revenue.’

CyberSafeKids agree, saying that more needs to be done by both Government and platform owners to ensure that online services are designed with the safety of their users in mind.

The new media regulator in Ireland, Coimisiún na Meán, states that people may soon be required to upload a selfie to websites if they want to view pornography to prevent children from accessing it. Mr Hogan suggested that this is regulation that could have real ‘teeth’ if implemented.

Meanwhile, CyberSafeKids recommends that there should be a greater focus on online safety and digital literacy in schools. Almost three quarters of teachers say that online safety is a significant issue in schools and nearly half feel they don’t have sufficient knowledge or skills to effectively deliver educational messages on online safety.

The charity acknowledges the key role that parents and parent communities play – such as the initiative in all Greystones national schools. But these initiatives need to be properly resourced to support both parents and teachers.

CyberSafeKids recommends that every child between the age of six and 16 is provided with continuous age-appropriate online and digital literacy education in school which is a mandatory curricular subject.

Secondly, parents should be ‘adequately informed and supported to be active and engaged digital parents. This will require well-targeted and well-resourced information, awareness campaigns and support resources.’

Until all this legislation and supports are in place, we need to urgently change the culture around smartphones that suggests that it is ok for young children in primary school to either own a smartphone or use it without strict supervision.

Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork.

Dr Catherine Conlon
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