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Online safety concerns spiral after lockdown school closures

A CLARE-based psychologist has said she has been inundated with concerns from parents over their children’s online activities during the months while the schools were closed.

Dr Maureen Griffin is an online safety expert who provides psychological services in the areas of online offending and safety. She also works, at a preventative level, with schools, students and parents. The forensic psychologist has reiterated calls for social media companies to do more to enforce age controls. Dr Griffin also described the availability to children of dangerous content on apps like TikTok as “deeply concerning” and warned we are in danger of creating “a guinea pig generation” in terms of potential online harm.

Last week, research from Cyber Safe Ireland showed that, over the last year, 61% of children had been contacted by strangers through online games. TikTok was found to be the most popular app. Despite the fact that it has a minimum age requirement of 13 – three years below the digital age of consent, the survey found that 40% of those aged eight to 12 have an account.

“TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) has been increasing in popularity with students across Ireland for the last number of years, right down to second and third class students,” Dr Griffin said. “Lockdown and the lack of structure and routine in our daily lives has undoubtedly lead to an increase in the use of, and reliance on, our devices. In a lot of respects our devices have been a life line, especially during lockdown.

However, over the last six months, I have been inundated with emails from concerned parents. For many parents, they were (still are) trying to balance working from home and caring for their children. The main concerns centred around the amount of screen time their children were consuming, overexposure online and how to control or monitor what their children are viewing or doing online.”

In recent weeks, TikTok, a video sharing app, has come under scrutiny after clips of a man fatally shooting himself went viral. The app also attracted censure after the emergence of a craze encouraging children to create and share videos appearing to promote violent Republicanism.

“Unfortunately, age in-appropriate, violent and sexual content is nothing new online,” Dr Griffin said. “Such content has appeared on multiple platforms down through the years, despite efforts to prevent it. However, it is deeply concerning that such content is so easily accessible to our children on their devices, and through an app which has such a young demographic base. Although TikTok introduced safety features as part of its digital well-being such as screen time management; restricted mode, which purports to filter out violent and sexual content; and family safety mode which allows parents to control the type of content on their child’s feed, many parents and students I work with have not activated these features.”

In light of ongoing calls for media organisations and government to increase regulatory efforts, Dr Griffin said that moderation of content is an important first step.

“More responsibility needs to be placed on the social media companies that enable harmful content to be shared in the first instance,” she said. “It is not enough to say, ‘This content violates our terms of use or community guidelines and we have now removed it’. You cannot un-see something. We are simply reacting and letting our young people be the guinea pig generation in terms of overexposure online and the resultant harm that it can cause.

“As per TikTok’s terms of use, “’The services and the platform are only for people 13 years old and over”. Common Sense Media recommends 15+ years for TikTok. Our digital age of consent is 16 years.”

While the Data Protection Act of 2018 sets 16 as the minimum age at which someone can open a social media account, Dr Griffin’s experience is that the rule is easy to get around. “Robust age verification measures were to be a key concern for companies to be GDPR compliant, however despite some apps upping their age limit to 16 years for Irish users, nothing much has changed,” she said. “Responsibility has now been placed back on parents, and no parent wants their child to be the only one in their class who is not on a particular app. From my work with students and parents, I commonly hear about lying to set up an account, with some parents putting in their own date of birth, believing this will keep their child safer online. Unfortunately, it does not.”

In this county, one of the schools which has taken a very proactive approach, with Dr Griffin’s help, is Clarecastle National School. “‘Our Internet and Technology Use Agreement’ is a great example of a whole school community agreement where parents feel supported, better informed and empowered to say ‘No’, as they know their child is now not the only one,’ Dr Griffin said. “More pressure also needs to be placed on social media companies to ensure that users are of age or parental consent has been obtained.”

Despite the many challenges – not least in terms of the enactment of the pending legislation on online safety and media regulation – Dr Griffin is clear that there are a range of steps that parents and guardians can take.

“I often use the analogy of learning to cycle in my workshops. In real-life, we do not start our child off with a 26 inch, 21-speed, high tech mountain bike. We spend time researching: what is safe, what is recommended as age appropriate, before we spend money. We get them an age-appropriate bike, matched to their height, with stabilizers to protect them until they learn to balance. We spend time with them, teaching them how to cycle, pointing out the dangers and instilling safety advice. The same needs to be done when it comes to technology. We need to start our children off on devices with ‘stabilizers’, devices that limit the risks, devices that have parental controls and restrictions in place. We need to spend time with them, talking about the amazing benefits of technology but also the pitfalls and prepare them for situations they could be faced with. As they get older, we can begin to remove the stabilizers, helping them along the way to balance their technology use.”

Dr Griffin’s advice on child safety online:

Control app downloads for children at national school level in particular but ideally all the way to 16 years. You can do this using Family Sharing for Apple users or Family Link for Android users or using a parental control app such as Screen Time, which enables you to set time limits, pause the device, set web filtering, check web history, control App downloads and much more.

Check the age rating for apps and games. Common Sense Media provides great reviews and age recommendations based on user’s experience/content.

Use parental controls and filters on devices your child uses and activate privacy and security settings on apps/sites.

Model good practices.

Preparing children for situations they may encounter in their online lives is vital. This helps build digital resilience.

Remove the worries children can experience with owning a device. I have spoken with children at national school level who worry about hackers; not setting up their account properly; something scary popping up on the screen etc. If the device is co-owned, by parent and child, then we take responsibility for setting up accounts; the privacy and security setting; the terms and conditions etc. This removes sole ownership from the child, thus reducing worries and enabling greater control for parents.

Protecting our children online is a process, not a one off discussion. Start early –there are some great books outlining rules for safety online (e.g. Sam and Sue Lean about Cyber Safety from Health and Safety Publications Mallow, Timmy’s Technology Troubles (timmystales.com/timmys-technology-trouble/) and Tek the Modern Cave Boy (commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/tek-the-modern-cave-boy).

About Fiona McGarry

Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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