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Wednesday 20 February 2019

Almost one in three Irish children chats online with strangers

Popular: ‘Fortnite’ is a multiplayer online game that’s captured the imagination of many schoolchildren
Popular: ‘Fortnite’ is a multiplayer online game that’s captured the imagination of many schoolchildren
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

The majority of children aged between eight and 13 years now owns a smartphone, with close to a third talking to strangers online at least once a week, according to CyberSafeIreland's annual report.

Its survey of 5,312 children aged between eight and 13 over the past academic year found that more than a third (34pc) of eight-year-olds and 92pc of 13-year-olds own a smartphone.

And despite the age of digital consent being 16 with age restrictions of 13 on popular social media sites, 70pc of children are using social media and messaging apps, the report found.

The survey also found that a worrying number of children are spending hours online each day.

Close to 20pc of 12-year-olds and 10pc of eight-year-olds are spending more than four hours a day glued to their devices. Almost a third of children spend up to two hours a day online, according to the third annual report by the children's online safety charity.

While what is considered the appropriate amount of screen time is debatable, the report's authors stressed it was essential for children to strike the right balance between their online and offline lives.

The report also found that the number of children talking with strangers online trebled over the past year.

In 2016-17, just 6pc of children communicated daily with online strangers, compared with 18pc in 2017-2018.

Overall, almost half, or 42pc, of children admitted to online communication with strangers; with 14pc conversing at least once a week with a stranger and 18pc conversing daily.

While the authors concede that 64pc of contact with strangers is through gaming and 91pc is through social media and messaging apps, they warn children are not practising the same awareness of 'stranger danger' online as they would offline.

"Ultimately, many will value popularity higher than privacy," the authors wrote, adding "recent court cases have demonstrated that the internet offers many opportunities for people to meet and groom children online, and that they will do so through popular online games and social media and messaging apps."

They also warned that some online games like 'Fortnite' have become a bugbear for parents over the past year with many expressing "serious concern about how addicted their children were to the game".

There was also concern about its effect on school life, with children getting little sleep after "gaming into the night, children falling out over the game, children feeling left out if their friends were allowed more time than them".

Meanwhile, Communications Minister Denis Naughten said he would challenge Facebook and Google when he met company officials in San Francisco today to discuss their age verification systems.

He said he would be seeking "any new proposals or technical mechanisms that they could apply to their systems" to make it harder for children to access age-restricted sites.

CyberSafeIreland CEO Alex Cooney said it was "high time" social media companies did more to protect children. If they didn't, the Government should appoint a Digital Safety Commissioner to "enforce greater corporate responsiveness".

Irish Independent

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