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Safer Internet Day: What age should children get a mobile phone?

Tuesday the 8th of February 2022 marks Safer Internet Day which aims to promote safe, responsible and positive use of technology with the goal of raising awareness and starting a conversation about internet safety.  Clare Daly, Child Law Solicitor at Comyn Kelleher Tobin gives an overview of the relevant legislation and how to promote a safer environment online.

Irish law has changed considerably over the last number of years in response to calls to protect children from the dangers of the online world, including cyberbullying and harmful content.  However, what responsibility do we have as individuals to ensure our children are safe online?

The Statistics

Statistics show us that the online world can be a harmful place for children, and cyberbullying, in particular, is by no means a rare occurrence. Last year, 29% of 10 to 17 year olds reported that they were the targets of cyber bullying. Research by CyberSafeKids revealed that 29% of pre-teen children reported at least one bullying experience, that is almost 1 in 3 children. Cyberbullying is not limited to children. In fact, 1 in 5 adults reported that they experience harm online or on social media¹ . More recently, the Department of Justice research found that one in ten people under the age of 37 across the country have had intimate images of themselves shared online. Also, one adult in 20 claims to have had an intimate image of themselves shared online or on social media without their consent.²

Legislation

Since 2021, Irish law prohibits the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. It also criminalises threatening to share intimate images without consent. This law, known as Coco’s Law, prohibits image-based abuse and carries significant penalties. In terms of cyberbullying, this law also provides stronger measures against harassment.

More recently, there have been proposals to place some responsibility on social media platforms for harmful content posted on their sites.

The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill proposes to establish a new regulator, the Online Safety Commissioner. This new Commissioner will be tasked with regulating online safety, drafting binding codes of conduct protecting children and all users from ‘harmful content’. There have also been calls to empower this new Commissioner with an individual complaints mechanism and the government is reviewing this at present. Social media companies do have their own internal content and moderation policies prohibiting content which breaches these rules.  For now, it is clear that there will be external monitoring and sanctions where binding online safety codes are not adhered to, exposing internet users to harmful content and age-inappropriate content. The proposed law would include an advertising ban in relation to junk food, infant formula products online and the prohibition on any form of profiling or tracking of children’s data.

Safer Internet Day

While there is some way to go in terms of our legal responses to meet the ever-changing threats brought about by the evolving nature of the internet, progress is being made in terms of legislation. But what about our personal responsibility? Safer Internet Day is about opening conversations around internet safety. And so, we must start the conversation: why are young children alone online, predominantly by smart phone?

Cyber psychologist Mary Aiken, an expert in this area, has said the online world is an actual place, and how we interact with each other changes considerably when we are behind a keyboard.³ What age is a child able to navigate these online interactions?

We wouldn’t allow young children alone in a strange city, and yet the internet is comparable to a city. It has its business areas, its shopping platforms, and it has red light districts. It also has criminal elements which we would not want our children exposed to. And yet too often, we see evidence that small children are being left alone online, accessing all kinds of sites by way of smart phones and tablets.

Ultimately good online behaviour, anti-bullying policies in our schools and online resources for parents, teachers and children, are all vitally important to show our young people the necessity for appropriate, kind, respectful online behaviour, that offensive online engagement has sanctions and causes very real harm to other people.  We have seen the emergence of numerous schemes running free online educational programmes providing necessary fantastic resources for school, parents and children, for example by Cybersafe Kids and McAfee.

Yet, despite all of these external protections and mechanisms, the question for inside each household remains: what age should my child get a smart phone?

We know that the digital age of consent in Ireland is 16. That is the age at which a child can consent to their data being processed, including by social media companies in terms of TikTok, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram. Most of these apps require a child to be over 13 before they can create an account. However, despite this, a recent survey from CyberSafeKids of 4,000 Irish primary school children, found that:

  • 84pc of those aged between 8 and 12 in Ireland use at least one social media or messaging service such as Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok,
  • a third of Irish children aged between 8 and 12 now post videos of themselves online,
  • 93pc of pre-teens now have some kind of phone, tablet or other smart device, and
  • almost a third saying that they have been bullied online.

Conclusion

There appears to be a huge number of young children accessing smart devices. It raises a further question, should there be legal guidance around this? Can we impose laws on parenting decisions being made inside someone’s home? Yet we already do this – we have laws as to the age and stage of car seat we place our children in when driving them to school. We have laws around age restricted activities such as smoking, drinking alcohol and gambling, access to movies, and ratings on age appropriate video games- why do we not have age restrictions on smart phones in particular and on access to online platforms more generally?

Ireland’s leading cyber safety expert, Professor Mary Aiken says that children under the age of 14 should not have a smart phone. Perhaps the legislature might, in time, agree. For now, we should be listening to the experts.

 

Sources:
¹One in five adults experienced harm online – survey (rte.ie)
²Justice Minister says ‘stark’ findings shows one in 20 have had intimate images shared online (thejournal.ie)
³Life in Cyberspace (eib.org)


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