Sunday 24 March 2019

'Children under the age of 14 should not have a smart phone' - Ireland's foremost cyber safety expert

Dr Mary Aiken Photo: Steve Humphreys
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

An advisor to Europol’s European Crime Centre said the digital age of consent in Ireland, which is 13, is too young.

UCD academic Dr Mary Aiken said the internet is “not fit for children as it stands”, and Irish people still have time to lobby the Irish government to increase the digital age of consent.

She said Irish children under the age of 14 should not have a smart phone.

“I don’t like the word ban. I think it sounds a little prescriptive, but I think we should have advisory protocols that can actually provide guidelines in terms of when is the best time to introduce a child to any technology… Be that a smart phone or iPad or computer… any technology.” Dr Aiken told

“Generally I don’t think children under the age of 14 should have a smart phone.”

“That doesn’t say they can’t use basic phones to contact their parents or friends and be contactable.”

The Department of Education should be informing Irish schools on policies and guidelines for smartphone use, Dr Aiken told

“The Department of Education should be actively engaging with primary and secondary schools to introduce policy and guidelines in terms of the use of smart phones. For example, I think that smart phones should not be allowed in primary schools.”

France is to impose a total ban on pupils using mobile phones in primary and secondary schools starting in September 2018.

Phones are already forbidden in French classrooms but starting next school year, pupils will be barred from taking them out at breaks, lunch times and between lessons.

Dr Aiken said: “If you look at the French ban, they’re banned completely in terms of not being used during school breaks. I’m sure in Irish schools, depending on the school, they aren’t using smart phones in the classroom unless it’s part of an interactive class, but French schools ban phones during recreational breaks.”

“The children were not socialising with each other at break in terms of conversation, and they were not exercising.”

“It would encourage children to socialise with each other face to face, and encourage them to exercise.”

“For example, if children during the time of 8.30 or 9am until 4/4.30pm have a complete break from mobile phone devices, that could be very constructive, from a developmental point of view.”

“France probably leads in the area, French people are known for being culturally protective. I think that because they are so protective of their culture, they’re putting protocols in place as recognition of the impact of technology on society.”

“They’re known for protecting their language, their music industry, their film industry. They’re now protecting French children in cyberspace. I think we can learn from that.”

Holland and Germany are also leaders in terms of protecting children online, Dr Aiken said.

“In Holland and Germany, they have adopted a very protective stance on the digital age of consent, and they have opted to go with the default EU age of consent which is 16. Germany has an incredible record in terms of child protection.”

“The internet is not fit for children as it stands. There is no shallow end of the swimming pool.”

“It’s not too late, [the digital age of consent] doesn’t come into effect until May. You still have a chance to lobby.”

“Show me the evidence for the age of 13… this is a legal construct that you have to have specific age. But in psychology children develop in age bands, so, say, between 11 and 14.”

“And if that’s the case then effectively what you need to do is legislate at the upper age of the age band.”

Irish children under 16 are deemed too young to attend a GP on their own for health advice, so the same age should apply for digital consent, she said.

“As a society, we put structures in place to help parent children.”

“We had a huge debate about the age of consent for physical health issues, so what age could a child go to the doctor to see them on their own, and it was deemed that a child younger than the age of 16 was incapable of giving informed consent in terms of their physical health.”

“Now we have a whole body of evidence pointing to negative aspects in terms of mental health and children engaging in social media. So how could a child possibly give informed consent at 13 regarding their mental health if they cannot give it regarding their physical health. I think it’s eminently challengeable,” Dr Aiken told RTE’s Prime Time last night.

Dr Aiken said it is incumbent on the Irish government to set protocols in place, which can help guide parents in terms of their childrens’ smartphone use.

“I don’t think we should start with parents. I think that statutory authorities have to come up with protocols, academics can inform that process. So if we think about stages of development, we had Piaget stages of real world development – your child should walk at one, they should construct sentences at 18 months… and we don’t have the equivalent for stages of cyber cognitive development, for example, what’s the best age to give a child a smartphone.”

“If we had those protocols and they were backed by authorities, then at least parents would know how to make decisions.”

“In my work with Europol we issued a warning six months ago saying that we found that children as young as seven were being targeted by predators online, and what’s significant is you can have a predator who is a paedophile and who has a sexually deviant interest in the child, but there’s a whole new cohort now who have an economic interest in exploiting the child, what’s called ‘sextortion’ or ‘online coercion’.”

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