'The reality is there is no one in charge'
Dr Mary Aiken talks to Sarah Caden about the realities of cyberspace and the dangers it presents for our children
'The reason we see cyber feral behaviour online is because there is a perception that there is no one in charge," Dr Mary Aiken says. "And the reality is that there is no one in charge.
"In the real world, we don't expect parents to man doors to bars to make sure children don't get access, or expect them to be behind counters of off-licences to stop them buying alcohol," adds Aiken, a UCD professor and academic adviser to Europol's cybercrime centre. "So why then do we expect parents to be almost exclusively responsible for children in cyber contexts?"
You can give parents all the advice in the world as to how to control their child's online life, Aiken says, but if there are no adequate controls over the content to which they are exposed and the social media to which they are virtual slaves, then it's all pointless.
"Everyone is shocked and horrified by the Matthew Horan case," Aiken says, "but in mid-2017 at Europol, we issued a warning that children as young as seven were being targeted in terms of online coercion known as 'sextortion'. These people are the new men in white vans who are a threat to our children".
Last Monday, in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, Matthew Horan pleaded guilty to charges of sexually exploiting children within the State. He also pleaded guilty to distributing child porn and possessing child porn at his home and to sexually exploiting children through Snapchat and Instagram.
Evidence was given of how he had recorded Skype chats on his computer, which showed him engaged in conversations with two nine-year-old girls, together and separately, with footage of them engaged in sexual acts. There were sexually explicit texts with these girls.
There was also an 11-year-old girl whose nude images Horan said he'd upload to her social media if she didn't send him more images. This girl disclosed to him that she was suicidal.
Horan used several platforms to receive images from children. He used Kik, Instagram, musical.ly and Snapchat. He used these platforms, but the children did too. And the children, officially, legally, are too young to be on these platforms.
But they are on them, and they are being put at risk by being on them and Dr Mary Aiken, for one, is desperate to know when we are going to do something to protect our children.
"It's exhausting doing the tips and good advice," Mary Aiken says, "I've done the trying to be helpful piece for years, but I'm now getting to point where I am not going to do that any more because it's not productive. We're not getting to the core of the problems and I'm tired of sticking my finger in the dyke".
Aiken outlines a case in Denmark that she felt summed up where we are at with our children online. Earlier this month, Danish police charged just over 1,000 people with distribution of indecent images of children, as the material featured two 15-year-olds having sex.
The age of sexual consent in Denmark is 15, so the charges do not hinge on that. Instead, the charges relate to the distribution of images of under-18s involved in sexual activity, which is a crime of distributing child pornography.
The 1,000 people charged are, for the most part, aged between 15 and 20 years. The week before last, Mary Aiken explained her concerns about this case. She didn't argue that the dissemination of this material should go unpunished, but questioned who should be punished for its dissemination.
"As a society," Aiken said, "what we have to ask is how society has facilitated this behaviour. If you are going to prosecute a child and ruin their life, effectively, I would like to know what sentence an app developer whose technology has facilitated the distribution of a sexted image should get for their role in the crime".
If nine-year-old Irish kids are able to access a variety of social-media platforms, when, officially, they shouldn't be on them until the age of at least 13, then Aiken says it isn't entirely the parents' fault.
"We should be shocked but it brings home the point that there is a massive requirement for education of parents so that they are aware of what's happening. And that falls back on Government and the various departments from justice, to education to communications really joining the dots. They need to create a central resource to make parents aware."
The issue of an age of digital consent is huge for Mary Aiken and that concern is made real in the Horan case.
Aiken explains that in 2016, the EU stipulated that the age of digital consent should be set at 16, though individual states could set it as low as 13 if they saw fit. This age of consent is the age at which a child can avail of online services or subscribe to a social-media platform, without parental consent.
"In Ireland," Aiken says, "there was an outcry from the tech industry, arguably because they would lose so many users from their platforms if this happened. There followed an Irish consultation process and, from May of this year, the age of digital consent in Ireland will be set at 13.
"I have met very few people who are aware of this consultation process," says Aiken. "When I speak to groups of parents and ask if they'd heard of it, I'm lucky if one hand is raised." Essentially, what all this means, is that if a child of 13 says they want to join Facebook and the parent says they can't, then the law favours the child. The age of medical consent, she points out, is 16.
"So, parents of Ireland," says Aiken, "you have handed over the parenting of your 13-year-old children to the technology industry, and with the support of our Government. I think parents feel overwhelmed, and it's not fair that parents are left to paddle their own canoe in cyber space."
Of course, it is the case that 13 is currently the age that most social media platforms set as their minimum age requirement for registration, but there's nothing to stop children from lying.
There's also nothing to stop parents from being complicit in that lie by allowing their children to sign up in the belief that they'll play it safe online.
Even if your child plays it safe, though, think about the people of ill-intent who lie in wait to lure them into compromising situations that then becomes cyber-blackmail and, as in the case of Horan, sextortion.
This is happening, and in a world where 11-year-olds are sexting, the initial compromising material is often being handed on a plate to the blackmailers.
The answer to keeping your children off social media on their phones is to give them an old-fashioned brick phone, of course, and later this year, Aiken will be involved in consultation with school principals where she will be encouraging the banning of smartphones from schools.
If you really want to scare yourself as a parent, Mary Aiken says, you need to Google the ways in which your kids can bypass the security restrictions you put on the smart devices. Then you see how powerless you are in the face of the technology and that's why, she explains, it's not fair to make parents entirely responsible for the behaviour of the children.
"Whether you are the internet service provider, the app developer, the social media platform, the content generator, the entity that hosts, or the device manufacturer, my argument is that if a child is exposed to extreme content online, and harmed as result, then you are collectively involved in the abuse of a child. And that's all you can do," Aiken says.
"All you can do is hold them accountable in that way. They'll all say it's not my responsibility or my fault, but my argument is when this happens, you are collectively involved in the abuse of a child."
She adds: "If you think about what children are exposed to online, it is a form of abuse.
"A child has the right to healthy physical and mental development, my argument is that exposure to extreme content - adult pornography, extreme violence, websites that promote self-harm - this is child abuse. And child abuse was mentioned in the case in Belfast [where Facebook settled a case of a child who had been blackmailed with explicit images]. It makes me wonder if the tide is turning.
"We've been here before with the cigarette companies," says Aiken. "I think finally we have the prospect of class actions seeking legal redress for harm caused to the child. I wonder what the legal actions will look like, general negligence and personal injury? And are the social media giants making provisions?"
When Mary Aiken says she suspects that there is a flood of such cases coming, you definitely sense that she hopes it is so.
First, however, she would like someone to listen on the issue of the age of digital consent. And she does not believe that the Irish Government is listening. Or not to her, in any case.
Of course, then, setting an age limit of 13 or 16 would need to mean that it is also enforced. Aiken is not sure, for privacy reasons, about the suggestion of using PPS numbers as verification when registering online, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to enforce a real and reliable age limit and age verification process. And worrying over how to do it isn't a reason not to do it.
Cases like Matthew Horan scare us, of course, and we need to know that this kind of thing is happening, but even the less obviously awful stuff should bother us into action. The statistics are horrendous on how unfettered online access is affecting our young people.
The latest rates of anxiety and depression among children and teens is up 70pc in the past 25 years. Young people report that four of the five social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse.
Insomnia is on the increase among young people, with one in five reporting that they wake up at night to check their social media messages. Nine out of 10 teenage girls are reported to be unhappy with their bodies.
In 2017, one study rated Instagram, which is almost solely concerned with appearances, as the worst platform for mental health.
"Basically I have come to the conclusion, and this is my personal opinion, that what I have witnessed in Ireland is a cynical exercise of going through the motions," Aiken says. "I am one of the leading experts in this area worldwide, I take the time to go and talk to those in positions of authority and yet, my experience up to today has been that nobody is really listening.
"I began to think," she says, "that it was incompetence or perhaps wilfully ignoring the situation. For what, short-term gain? Self-interest over the welfare of the children of Ireland? And then [last Thursday] I got a phone call from Minister Denis Naughten inviting me to consult on process - so maybe, just maybe things will change."
We don't have to accept things the way they are, Mary Aiken emphasises. The age of digital consent will not be set at 13 until May of this year. There is still time, she says, to phone or email or write to your TD and stand up for your children and your right to believe that they are protected. By you and beyond.
"We need to say, collectively: 'I am not giving up my child to this'."
'Grooming gangs' target kids on apps
Jim Harding, director of Bully 4u, a group that deals with online safety for young people, says paedophiles regularly haunt live-streaming apps.
He says Periscope and Omegle, in particular, are being used to target children. Omegle is a website that pairs two anonymous, random individuals in one-on-one chat sessions.
"Eight years ago, the danger was limited to the laptop or home computer. In those days, children didn't have access to smartphones in the way they do now."
He points out the surreptitious methods used by paedophiles to entrap young children.
"Predators might come across an image of a 15-year-old boy, for instance, on Omegle. They'll intercept that link, and the 15-year-old will suddenly see a 15-year-old girl pop up on the screen in front of them. But what the young people are actually watching is a recording - it's not a live stream at all.
"Messages are then typed across the bottom of the screen, and the conversation will gradually start to get sexual in nature. The girl will start to strip off, encouraging him to do the same. All this time he is being videoed by somebody else.
"This video will be sold on to a paedophile website, or else the victim may receive a demand for money to following day. That's the level of sophistication abusers are using now."
'Grooming gangs' are using Twitter's live video streaming app, Periscope, to post lurid messages and requests to try to entrap minors. The app allows users to film themselves on their phones, or tablets, and tweet a live link allowing anybody to watch live and make comments.
Paedophiles use dares, threats or the offer of rewards to try and manipulate users into nudity.
Mary Flaherty, chief executive of Children At Risk in Ireland (CARI), said parents should keep the channels of communication open with their child.
"Children need to feel that if something happens they can go to their parents for help, rather than keeping it secret, which makes them extra vulnerable online."