Social media images are now biggest internet risk
Children who post images innocently on social media face a growing threat from cyberbullies and online grooming, an internet safety expert has warned.
While five years ago, pornography would have been regarded as the biggest online risk, now it is images that children themselves upload that unwittingly present the major threat to their safety.
Pat McKenna, founder of Childwatch.ie, an Irish company promoting digital-based security and privacy for children, addressed school principals about what they and their pupils needed to know about the sinister outcomes of innocent internet use.
The company has been delivering talks in schools since 2007, but Mr McKenna said as technology evolves so too do the safety issues that need to be addressed.
He spoke of how innocent images can be misused by certain individuals and said that "many of those that are being bandied about are ordinary social media, party dress type images."
Such images may be uploaded by people, often unknown, who gained access to them by befriending a teenager on Facebook, or captured them from the video messaging app Snapchat, which is very popular with young girls.
Mr McKenna said while images posted on Snapchat expired after a few seconds, there are websites dedicated to capturing them.
"Some of these people go on to trade the identities of the children. A lot of these characters have galleries with thousands of images. There is one guy who started uploading on September 29 and he now has 17 or 18 galleries, with over 1,200 images," he said.
Mr McKenna said the misuse of images was also a factor in cyberbullying and students from several schools could be involved in one incident.
He outlined the emerging threats to child safety during a presentation to the annual conference of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), representing principals and deputy principals in second-level schools.
Mr McKenna warned that most schools were "not very well-equipped to deal with all that is going on in the digital space." But he said that if a child alerted a school to an issue that was beyond the school's power to resolve, the school could seek help from the Garda Siochana.
Childwatch.ie conducts research into online protection issues for young people on the internet, relating both to their safety and to the implications for their reputation, when data, particularly images, are misused.
As well as a threat from criminals, who may be motivated to harm a child or to profit from the information at their disposal by selling it on, the company's work also highlights how recruitment consultants use such data and images to advise potential employers about a person's character and sensibility.