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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Experts to warn TDs 'internet is not suitable for children'

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Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Two of the country's leading experts in online safety will today declare the internet "is not fit for children".

Professors Mary Aiken and Barry O'Sullivan believe the Government's current policy on web usage is placing children's psychological and social well-being at risk.

They will "unequivocally" oppose a recent Cabinet decision to set 'age of consent' for young people to sign up to online sites at 13.

"Evidence is mounting about the harmful effects of social networking sites on the well-being of children, including sleeplessness, obesity, compulsive use, and vulnerability to advertising," they will tell an Oireachtas committee.

Ms Aiken is an academic adviser to Europol's European Cyber Crime Centre, while Ms O'Sullivan is the Deputy President of the European Artificial Intelligence Association.

In a statement seen by the Irish Independent, they warn that the "utopia version" of the internet was that all users would be equal.

"If all users are equal then a child user is treated the same as an adult user, and this is why, arguably, the internet, by default, is not fit for children."

They suggest Ireland should appoint a Digital Safety Commissioner with aim of becoming a world leader in internet safety. "One specific task that could be assigned to this office is the development of a robust system for age verification online. Self-verification does not work," the statement says.

They also want to increase the planned legal age at which children can sign up to social media sites by three years to 16.

The professors accuse Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan of quoting from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in a "misleading" fashion when justifying setting the age at 13.

Ms Aiken and Mr O'Sullivan argued the current age goes against the Convention in terms "of the risks to a child's security, well-being, and physical, and mental health".

They admit setting an appropriate age is "complex" but add that children should not be placed in positions "where they neither have the digital skills, nor the understanding of the consequences of sharing their data or aspects of their personal lives".

Among the problems cited is that companies "can collect, record and share a child's home and school address, their location, their date of birth, their photos, phone number, their likes and dislikes, who they know, and the content of their conversations, including direct messages sent privately".

Their contribution to the Oireachtas Committee on Children is likely to put pressure on Mr Flanagan to review his proposals. Already his Fine Gael colleague Senator Catherine Noone has argued for a higher age, noting that Germany and the Netherlands have set it at 16.

Irish Independent

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