Jim Daly: 'High time for everyone to confirm their age online'
We have a duty to protect our children from the harms of the internet and we need to act now, writes Jim Daly
It's not that long ago since we as parents had to go looking for our children at tea time when they were out playing with their friends, or perhaps phone the neighbours - "Have you seen Johnny, his dinner is getting cold?" My next-door neighbour used to sound a bugle, and five minutes later the kids would come running in the door.
Technology has changed how we communicate with our children. Now almost all teenagers are contactable by mobile phone, and this is a good thing in many respects. If we are worried or looking for them, we just phone, it's so convenient.
I can also cast my mind back, however, to when we had to go to a shop to rent out a movie. Strict laws were and are in place for such businesses. One could not rent or sell a movie to any individual unless they were the required age to watch the particular movie, 12, 15 or 18. This would be clearly marked on the casing of the film. The most a minor might be exposed to would have been a slightly naughty picture on the cover of an over 18-rated movie. Of course, you were not allowed to look at the shelves in this part of the shop either, but it could happen by accident.
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Technology has changed this, too. Today it has somehow become normal to give our child unfettered access to violent and pornographic films from the ages of 10, 11, 12 and up. Only we don't call them adult movies - we call them phones or tablets.
The majority of children are good kids and they get on fine. But children will always be curious and they will google words they hear being spoken to find out what they mean; or, worse still, google image the word.
This is when they may bump into online content that can do irreversible damage to their mental well-being, and rob them of their most precious childhood years.
We have a collective duty to protect our children from the harms of the internet. It is not only down to parents or teachers or authorities, but each has a role to play.
The peer pressure can be insurmountable for parents, and nobody wants their Mary or Johnny to be the only child at school without a device that can enable them to interact with their peers in a fun and proactive manner.
So what must we do? Well, it's not rocket science, we had it right all those years ago when we made laws to protect minors from using or viewing adult content, in paper form, or video form, or cinema form.
We now need to extend those laws to include the internet. Currently a child is asked to tick the box to confirm they are over 18 - and that's it, they're done.
I have proposed that a new online verification code be required for everyone to use the internet. This would ideally be created by a government department such as the Department of Social Protection, as they hold our details on file already. It would be another unique field of information in numerical form attached to our profile. This code would not identify your name, birthday, address or any other specific detail. It would confirm only, in an encrypted form, that you are the required age to use the platform you are seeking to register on.
While many ridiculed this proposal when I spoke of it two years ago, we should recognise that we already use such a concept in many forms, such as number plates on cars, account numbers on cheque books, mobile phone numbers, to mention a few. All useless information on their own, but with links to important information to establish facts.
I have met the Data Commissioner and discussed my proposal; no data breach issues have been raised or highlighted to me.
Age verification would not be the only benefit of such an authentication system. In the event of online criminal activity being linked to a particular profile or platform, I would envisage the justice authorities being able to approach the department of social protection, and receive the details of who is operating the account, just as they would if a car number plate was associated with criminal activity.
We made laws in the past that were required for a small percentage of the population, yet we are sleepwalking into the unknown on this subject. Not legislating or regulating an area that is affecting almost every young person in the country is having a profound affect on the minds and wellbeing of our nation's children.
We don't need to wait for another country to see how their efforts get on - we can be leaders.
We have led the way in so many other public policy challenges in the past, with the rest of the world following after. This can be the same. We must act now.
Jim Daly is Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People