Wednesday 28 September 2016

We need ethical approach to problem behaviour online

Mary Aiken

Published 26/11/2015 | 02:30

Technology is now ubiquitous and while the Internet offers abundant opportunities for education, networking and communication, it can also manifest problem behaviours (Stock image)
Technology is now ubiquitous and while the Internet offers abundant opportunities for education, networking and communication, it can also manifest problem behaviours (Stock image)

To mark the UN Day Opposing Violence Against Women, Women's Aid have organised an international conference to discuss domestic violence and cybercrime, online abuse, stalking and non-consensual pornography.

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Women's Aid has received over 13,000 contacts to its direct services, with many women reporting that partners and ex-partners use new technologies to monitor and harass them online, through mobile phone, texting or dissemination of non-consensual pornography, often in combination with traditional stalking tactics. The Law Reform Commission is currently reviewing the law in this area, and organisers see this conference as an ideal opportunity to deepen the commitment of the Irish justice sector.

I participated in the Law Reform Commission seminar in April 2015 regarding its issues paper on personal safety, privacy, reputation and cyberbullying. A wide group of experts made submissions, ranging from Michael Tugendhat, a retired senior media judge of the English High Court, to Detective Sergeant Jennifer Molony of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Investigation Unit of An Garda Síochána. The seminar provided an excellent forum for discussion.

Technology is now ubiquitous and while the Internet offers abundant opportunities for education, networking and communication, it can also manifest problem behaviours.

Children are going online at an increasingly young age - the UK Ofcom 2014 report found that four in 10 children aged 5-15 now go online using a tablet computer, almost twice as many as in 2013, and somewhat disturbingly, one in 10 parents of children aged 3-4 stated that their child "knows more about the internet than they do".

In Ireland, we have reported one of the biggest increases in cyberbullying across Europe, jumping from 4pc in 2010 to 13pc in 2014. Among younger Irish teenagers (aged 13-14), bullying on social media has overtaken face-to-face bullying. Sexting (sending explicit texts or images) by minors is now worryingly almost normative in terms of practice; studies report that youth rates of participation vary from 15pc to 40pc. We continue to see new evolutions of risk-taking behaviour online - earlier this month, a sexting scandal was uncovered at a Colorado school, where teens were using 'ghost apps' to conceal sexting photos. Teens can hide their behaviour with the help of these secret apps. Some look like a calculator but once you set up passwords you enter a secret vault where you can store photos, videos, and even hidden browser history. How can parents possibly compete with technologies that facilitate such behaviour? It was reported that explicit images of young girls were being traded via these 'ghost apps', "just like trading cards". This raises the critical issue of contemporary hypersexualisation of young females (and males).

I have recently been appointed to the board of the Hague Justice Portal in the Hague.

On the 70th anniversary of the UN, I gave a speech at the Hague Talks, and highlighted the serious problem of children exposed to "legal but age inappropriate content online". I pointed out that according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child has a right to healthy mental development, a right to a childhood. Exposure to extreme content online such as pornography, extreme violence and/or websites that promote self-harm arguably constitutes abuse of a child, with negative implications for mental health and development. Last week, on International Children's Day, we launched a formal consultation period regarding our proposed amendment to the 1989 UN Convention, to incorporate the Cyber Rights of the Child.

Real-world bullying often leaves no evidence, whereas cyberbullying and online harassment is nothing but digital evidence. How as a society did we ever get to a point where these issues have become so problematic? The volume and velocity of content online means that these are 'Big Data' problems - the good news is that it is eminently possible to address them - all that is required is a collective societal will to do so. The answer lies in technology solutions to technology-facilitated problem behaviours.

In the context of this week's conference, the important question is as follows: is there an evolving link between those who cyberbully at 10, and then cyberstalk or cyberharass in their twenties?

Additionally, if young girls are considered as sexualised digital objects to be traded in their teens, then how do we expect they are going to be treated in 10 years' time? The EU officially considers the Internet as an infrastructure, much in the same vein as a railroad or motorway - it is many things, but it is not simply an infrastructure. So what can we do? We need stakeholders to take a wider view - this is not about silos, about Department of Justice versus Department of Communications, or policing versus industry. We need to urgently counter a myopic view of the Internet - this is about the ever-evolving pervasive and profound impact of technology on human behaviour, on the individual, and on society in general. We need policy makers who are well-informed, academic institutions who value research that contributes to social justice issues, and an electorate that holds stakeholders accountable for the creation and maintenance of better cyber society. We need to create robust foundations regarding online behaviour; this is about good practice and governance online, an ethical approach, and most of all common sense. President Michael D Higgins promotes an ethical approach to social justice issues; in this case, we need a cyber-ethical approach.

Professor Mary Aiken is Director of RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre

Irish Independent

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