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Pupil power: taking control of online safety

A new internet resource for Second and Third Year SPHE classes aims to empower teens to deal with the 'sextortion' threat, writes Katherine Donnelly


A member of the gardai speaks at the event

A member of the gardai speaks at the event

A member of the gardai speaks at the event

A recent survey of Irish second-level students showing that one in three Sixth Year pupils have sent a sexually explicit image is a wake-up call for those not already alert to the full extent of the perils of the online world.

The problem is not confined to Sixth Years: the survey, by the UCD tech start-up Zeeko, revealed that some 4pc of First Years - 12 to 13-year-olds - are also engaging in such risky behaviour.

Some recent court cases around online grooming of Irish children highlight the clear and present dangers lurking in this country. And it knows no borders: the proliferation of mobile phones and other digital devices makes it easy to capture and share images with almost anyone, anywhere in the world.

This week, the Garda Online Child Exploitation Unit (OnCE) seized computers and phones with tens of thousands of sexually explicit images of children following 31 raids in 12 counties. It is not known yet whether any of the victims are resident in Ireland.

Sharing inappropriate images is never a good idea, although, if consensual, it can be within the law. But when such images are used, indeed encouraged, for sinister motives, such as the sexual gratification of a paedophile, or extortion, it is a crime with very serious consequences for the victim.

It is known as sextortion or webcam blackmail: when young people are persuaded or forced to send sexual images and/or videos of themselves, or perform sexual acts via webcam. Children may think they are conversing with someone they would regard as a friend.

Perpetrators gain trust via gaming or social media suites, before luring children into a sexualised conversation and the sharing of explicit photos. They may threaten to publish the photos if the victim does not provide even more images or money.

The new, digital age crime phenomenon prompted the launch last year of an awareness campaign by the Garda OnCE unit, in line with similar initiatives in other European countries.

Already there has been a big response from schools to a request in the autumn from the OnCE Victim Identification team seeking images of uniforms and other school-related items that would help identify teen victims, or potential victims of online exploitation and blackmail, from material that comes into their possession.

OnCE is also involved in a new resource for Second and Third Year classes in second-level schools called Be In Ctrl, launched yesterday to mark Safer Internet Day.

Be In Ctrl was produced by Webwise, the internet safety initiative of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), in partnership with OnCE and others, including the Department of Education's inspectorate.

It has been developed for Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) classes and contains three lesson plans and an information pack for school leaders. It will be supported by visits to schools by gardaí, who are being specially trained for this role.

Be In Ctrl aims to help students understand that online sexual coercion and extortion of children is a crime, to raise awareness of safe online communication and to know when to seek help and report incidents to the gardaí.

It complements the Webwise Lockers resource, also developed for SPHE classes, which is aimed at preventing the sharing of explicit self-generated images of minors.

There is much debate around the ages at which children should have a smartphone and engage with social media, but educationalists say that educating children and their parents around safe use is what is important.

Dr James O'Higgins Norman, who is National Director of the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, Dublin City University (DCU), says while policy, legal and technical solutions can contribute to online safety, research shows that education and stronger parenting are key to young people being safe online.

He says the internet and social media provide great benefits to young people and, while there are risks online, they should never be allowed to block out the benefits.

Clive Byrne, who is Director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), says policies such as a ban on mobile devices in schools, are neither practical nor plausible.

He says increased resources, greater awareness and enhanced information represent the most effective way to protect children online and welcomes Be In Ctrl as "an important part of this effort".

PDST National Director Ciara O'Donnell says access to the online world is a natural part of a young person's development but, as new technologies evolve, the ways in which young people use that environment to communicate and form relationships are also in a state of flux.

She says teachers have the capacity to positively impact students' attitudes and behaviours and are, therefore, well placed to work sensitively and consistently with students.

O'Donnell says online coercion and extortion is facilitated through the use of strategies such as impersonation, hacking or the theft of a child's image and the use of coercion through threats and intimidation.

Many victims do not seek help or report their concerns to the gardaí because they are embarrassed about the material the perpetrator has, or because they are unaware they are victims of a crime. The consequences for the well-being of young people include anxiety, depression and risk of self-harm, including suicide.

Det Sgt Mary McCormack of the OnCE Victim Identification Unit previously told the Irish Independent that children can be manipulated in a single online conversation. It can start with a request through a platform such as Instagram saying "you are very beautiful; can I have a picture?" and rapidly escalate into requests for sexually explicit images.

As part of its wider internet safety campaign, Webwise has launched a new online parenting hub and booklet for parents, called A Better Internet, to support the work being done in school.

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