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Opinion: Is allowing children unrestricted internet access a child protection issue?

Would you be happy for your six-year-old to have unlimited, unsupervised access to a firearm – perhaps if it had been modified to only shoot lighter loads? asks Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

LAST WEEK AN Irish survey found that three-quarters of eight-year-olds own a smart device and 40% of kids were chatting to strangers online.

CyberSafeIreland surveyed more than 1,200 children, aged between eight and 10.

Perhaps the most concerning finding was a quarter of the kids said that they were playing over-18 video games containing violent or sexually inappropriate content. 

So kids who are not permitted to watch movies like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, or Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle without the company of an adult are being given access to the Internet – and some of them have no limits placed on that access at all.

Most parents have a reasonable knowledge about the risks their children will face once they venture onto the worldwide web. 

If you spend any time at all online, you should be well aware of the prevalence of extreme pornography, often violent and demeaning in nature. We all know about the general risks inherent in social media such as bullying and grooming and you can’t ignore the existence of various extreme factions be they political, religious or ideological that have found a home in certain corners of the virtual landscape.

Yet many people allow their small children totally unrestricted internet access just the same. It really is quite hard to fathom. 

The majority of beginner’s tablets and iPhones – the hard-wearing kind designed in bright colours for kids – do come equipped with different versions of Net Nanny software, which can be set to filter out whatever particular material you would prefer your children did not encounter.

There are also devices available that will only allow your child to access certain cartoon channels, gaming sites or educational forums.

Yet for most kids, these types of barriers do not offer anything more than a fun challenge and can be easily circumvented with only a moderate amount of computer know-how.

Perhaps surprisingly there is no law whatsoever that obliges hardware, software or internet providers to put any kind of protection for children in place. Nor to require parents to ensure such protection is there when young children go online. 

Maybe it is time we asked ourselves: could allowing young children unsupervised access to the internet amount to a serious serious child protection issue?

The law

In terms of Irish governance on this matter, The Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment has been tasked with developing policy.

It has established the National Advisory Council for Online Safety, which is a forum for non-government, industry and academic stakeholders to discuss and advise on online safety issues, with a view to advising, identifying emerging issues, creating safety materials and analysing research and data on the topic.

They are currently in the process of developing guidance for online safety and are also creating an online portal for parents to access materials. 

Whether or not this work will eventually advise legislation is anyone’s guess.

In 2017, Jim Daly, the Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, proposed legislation that would have seen parents who allow their children to own mobile phones with unrestricted internet access be fined.

The legislation floundered, however, with CyberSafeIreland’s Chief Executive, Alex Cooney, welcoming the fact that it highlighted the problems and encouraged debate, but advising that prohibition does not work:

“We know from speaking to thousands of children that the answer lies in education,” he said. “Prohibition will just push the problem underground.”

The ISPCC were more strident, stating that a national strategy should be developed, which would include education, increased regulation and law reform, but they advised that children’s privacy should be respected within reason.

In the end, current wisdom seems to be that the responsibility will ultimately fall on the shoulders of parents, and the children themselves.

The debate

I have participated in parenting courses and child protection conferences in which the issue of parental control over devices has come up and opinion among parents, over how to address these concerns, tends to be split down the middle.

Should parents retain the right to access their children’s phones? To view their messages, their internet search histories and their social media usage whenever they wish. Or is the ISPCC right that we should respect the child’s privacy?

Should young children only be permitted to go online if they are being fully supervised by an adult, or do parents set boundaries and then trust their kids to abide by them?

And that word seems to be central to the debate: trust.

Perhaps a good way to think about this is to look at other pieces of technology and consider how we would feel about our children having access to them. 

Would you trust your 10-year-old to behave maturely if he or she was left in control of your car?

Or do you think that the laws governing vehicle usage and safety, which are quite onerous, are reasonable and should be upheld?

Would you be happy for your eight-year-old to have unlimited, unsupervised access to a firearm – perhaps if it had been modified to only shoot lighter loads?
Or do you think the legislation around such weapons is just and fair?

Why then are we happy to allow our children such unfettered control over devices that are very dangerous?

We know that the internet can present children with situations that are life-threatening. Children have taken their own lives due to online bullying and that children can be groomed online.

In less extreme cases such as viewing violent pornography, or playing violent computer games, we can only guess the damage that is doing to small children. 

So while the issues are complex, the concept behind this in terms of child protection is fairly straightforward.

We need to keep our children safe – and sometimes that means saying no.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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Shane Dunphy

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