Hardcore sites spur child stress disorder
Kids suffering same PTSD symptoms as combat vets, says expert
EXPOSURE to explicit images of sex, torture and self-harm online is putting children at risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) similar to the experience of combat veterans, groundbreaking new research from world-renowned cybercrime expert Professor Mary Aiken has found.
Ms Aiken, who is from Dublin, is the director of the Cyber Psychology Research Centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and works for Europol cybercrime centre, and Interpol, the world's largest police organisation. She has also worked on research for the White House and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Her real-life cybercrime research inspired new US crime drama series CSI: Cyber.
Speaking on the publication of her new research on PTSD and virtual reality exposure therapy in civilian and military populations, Ms Aiken, said "legal but age-inappropriate content" is one of the "biggest problems" facing modern society.
Now she is calling on the Government and service providers to take "urgent action" to protect young people from harmful content online. "We know that witnessing events that involve people hurting other people can lead to PTSD in children - however, research in this area presents ethical challenges," said Ms Aiken, who will give a TED talk to kids in Dublin next weekend.
Although we don't have studies demonstrating the impact of exposure to extreme violence online or explicit media on the developing child, the findings of her latest co-authored study highlights growing reported incidents of PTSD in adults whose job it is to remove offensive online content for technology companies - including US social-network sites.
The harmful content includes: extreme pornography, violent street fights, animal torture, suicide bombings, child abuse material and, most recently, hostage decapitations.
"If disturbing online content is having a traumatic effect on adults, there is no doubt that it can also cause distress to young people," said Ms Aiken, who made 30 recommendations on Internet Content Governance to the Department of Communications last year, as part of an expert group. The wide-ranging recommendations included changes to institutional, legislative and administrative governance arrangements.
"Cyber and children is a complex area, therefore I believe that there is a danger that the issue may fall between departments, for example between Communication, Justice and Children and Youth Affairs," she said. "I would like to see us take the lead and not lag behind our European counterparts - those of us who have experience in this area are more than happy to help, and to support any productive initiatives."
According to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, an implementation group was established "immediately" after the publication of the report from the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group. A spokeswoman for the Department said: "It has met on a number of occasions. A very small number of decisions remain to be taken and it is expected that the report of this group will be brought to Government very shortly."
The Department of Justice did not respond directly to specific questions about which branch of Government is ultimately responsible for regulating harmful internet content.
However, a spokesman said that "suspected illegal content" can be reported to the website, Hotline.ie. If the material is thought to be illegal, it is then referred to gardaí.
Meanwhile, Brian Killoran, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) revealed online hatred and racism accounted for 8pc of their racism reports in 2014.
"The Government has not ratified the European Convention of Cyber Crime and as a result, Ireland is perceived as being soft on cybercrime," Mr Killoran said. "Our laws in this area are in urgent need of review as they were written in an era when online crime simply did not exist."
A recent study of 10,000 European children aged nine to 16 - including Irish youth - found that pornography topped their list of online concerns. Aggressive, cruel or gory content was the next most upsetting - particularly real violence against children or animals.
Ms Aiken added: "There is no 'command delete file' for your brain. Once you see something extreme or unpleasant online it can stay in your memory for a long time - and can be very distressing, especially for a child."
Symptoms of PTSD include: flashbacks, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts and anxiety about the event.
"While the internet can deliver incredible opportunities to educate, connect and entertain, it presents significant challenges. Basically, there is no shallow end of the swimming pool online. We are living through one of the largest unregulated social experiments of all time in terms of the potential impact of online adult pornography on youth development," Ms Aiken added, quoting the work of a Canadian forensic psychologist, Michael Seto. Although parents or guardians must be vigilant and familiar with all things cyber, Ms Aiken says they cannot be held almost "exclusively responsible" for child protection in cyberspace.
"In the real world, we have all sorts of protocols that protect children - the challenge for authorities is to implement the same standards online," she said, adding that almost 20pc of parents surveyed in a recent UK study stated the technology skills of their under five year olds surpassed their own.
Ms Aiken described plans by cable provider UPC to introduce child safety filters on home broadband connections as a "constructive step".
It has also agreed a deal with An Garda Siochana to automatically block child sexual abuse material from users seeking to access it via UPC connections.
Over the past five years, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) has experienced a rise in Childline calls and texts relating to internet issues.
ISPCC head of advocacy, Aoife Griffin, said 260 children reached out after exposure to offensive online images in 2014.
"We have seen a growing trend in reports related to harmful content, there are things coming up that we're trying to keep up with ourselves," said Ms Griffin. "However, in the majority of these reports, the child, generally aged eight to 18 years, stumbled upon the explicit content by accident."
Symptoms associated with these reports include: anxiety, stress and worry that parents, other adults or friends will assume they enjoy these sites.
Children are also often too afraid to tell their parents for fear of their devices being taken away.
"They may be tech savvy but children may not be able to cope with all the emotional issues that internet usage can raise, whether it's internet safety, viewing images online or cyber bullying," Ms Griffin added.
Tips for parents Advice from National Parents Council Primary and child safety experts:
Ensure open communication with your child about their online activity - sites used, time spent online and interaction
Negotiate rules around your child's activities online
Balance online risks with online benefits
Ensure online activity is based on child's age and maturity levels
Be familiar with the websites your child uses
Use protective filters and service providers that block harmful content
Be aware of other parental controls available
Report suspected illegal content from Irish host to Hotline.ie
Report suspected illegal content from international host to INHOPE.