I will provide a small bit of background. The ISPCC has been around for a long time. In the past ten to 15 years, we have noticed an increasing issue in case discussions when supervising our staff.
There always seem to have been some level of online risk or cybersafety issues occurring. Children within our children's advisory committees would have been coming to us stating that there were a lot of issues for young people at present because they are getting involved in Snapchat and chat groups and they had serious concerns about the ability of young people to cope with what they were seeing in these social media sites. It was all anecdotal in many ways but we had a gut feeling that there was something serious happening here that we needed to look at. Childline was receiving thousands of contacts from children distressed because they had done or said something online or had taken photographs or whatever, and did not know what to do with this information.
Rather than merely going along with piecemeal information, a team of managers, staff, volunteers and members of the children's advisory committee decided to conduct a complete review of our case work over the 18 months up to June 2016. The results from that are clear. In over one third of the cases we worked with over that period, including calls to Childline, online contacts to Childline, the text services in Childline and our face-to-face therapeutic professional services that are delivered all over the country, there was some form of online risk to the children involved. This is neither an urban issue nor a rural issue. It is an issue for every child in every part of the country.
There were a number of themes that came out strongly within this case review. The first one, not surprisingly, is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is as commonplace as bullying has ever been, but the way that it is being done has changed. As I said, one third of our cases involved cyberbullying to some extent. That would not have been the reason the child was referred to our service in the first place. The child could have been referred for anxiety issues - not sleeping at night, not being able to cope with issues, difficulties in maintaining friendships and in some cases children who were self-harming or who had suicidal ideation. These might have been the reasons we were getting the referrals but when one dug deep into those cases and looked at the rationale of why the children were experiencing this, online safety, cybersafety and the risks around being involved in the cyberworld form part of a third of the cases. When one considers the number of children we are talking about here, that is significant.
Excessive time spent online was the second. As I said, we looked at our cases. We also looked at our support line, which is for parents. The amount of time that children are spending online is hugely concerning, with young people spending up to five hours a day online. When one considers a child's day, he or she gets up in the morning and goes to school, and some children will have after-school, and by the time they get home, it could be 6 p.m. Yet they are spending five hours on average online. What else are these children doing? Where is their social interaction with the family? Where is their ability to switch off? It is a constant barrage of messages about how they look, how they should look, what they should be saying, who they should be going out with, what they should be doing and whether they are frigid or sluts - because it is one or the other. Children are finding it difficult to establish their own sense of identity and what is good for them and to make decisions and choices that are best for them.
Parents are very concerned as well that children are up in their rooms. They think their children are safe. They have their phone, iPad or whatever technology, and they think they are safe. In one of the cases within the document here, one parent came across a situation where she recognised that her child was being groomed by a paedophile ring and found that out through checking out and looking at the history and looking at whatever else. Imagine the fright any parent would get when he or she sees or comes across something in regard to that and the impact that it has on the child.
Parents have talked to us about the level of time spent online. Anybody here who is a parent of teenagers will know they will want to take their phone into the bedroom at night. I have teenagers and they do not do have their phones in their bedrooms at night. If one left that phone on, it is constant notifications throughout the night - at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Children are not getting sleep. If children are not getting sleep, they will not be able to cope with what comes at them the next day. We all know that sleep is a huge factor in terms of mental health. One has to get enough sleep in order to be able to cope with whatever one's challenges. Children are being woken up consistently during the night. Parents are telling us that they wake up to the sound in their homes and their children are having full-scale voice conversations on some app at 3 a.m. and have been on for an hour.
There is this constant pressure on young people to be on all the time. There is no time for just sitting on the couch and chatting anymore. It is to be constantly on the social apps, constantly engaging and constantly trying to put across this image that they are better than they perceive themselves to be. The big issue about this aspect is the fact that they do not think they are good enough, they do not think they are as good as everybody else and the constant streaming of information is adding to that level of anxiety. These are children as young as nine, ten and 11. One can imagine that level of pressure on a nine year old.
Children are getting technology a lot younger. Even seven or eight years ago, it was children who had just done their confirmation, and they would use their confirmation money to buy phones. Now it is communion money. These are smart phones where children have access 24 hours a day to whatever content is available. This was another big theme that showed up, the whole area of inappropriate content being accessed by young people. Children are coming across this accidentally, they are seeing it by older friends in the same housing estate and then they themselves are seeking out that information.
Parents have told us that they apply parental controls. That is great as it protects a child within the home. However, it does not protect the child when he or she is accessing Wi-Fi out on the street, in another house, in a shopping centre or wherever else. Those kind of controls in many ways give a false sense of security to parents because they think their children are safe and they do not have to be concerned.
Parents are completely unaware of how to keep their children safe. There is a complete lack of knowledge and information, from their viewpoint. They have this attitude in many ways that their children know it better than they do and there is absolutely no point in them becoming involved in this aspect. There is a huge need for education around that for parents and children alike.
Sexting is a huge issue. The biggest development that we have noticed in Childline and in all of our services is that this has become the norm rather than the exception. The expectation is that if one is in any kind of relationship or one wants to have a relationship then one needs to take photographs of oneself and send them on to the partner, if one does not then there is something wrong with you, whereas if one does one can be so-called "slut shamed". It is either end again - there is no pleasing anybody in terms of the actions that young people are taking. Children are feeling pressurised to share self-generated images. When we talk to children about this, they say, "This is safe sex". Their attitudes have changed completely. They describe this as a safe way of exploring their sexuality and safer than having sex.
It moves on then, from taking pictures to one of the other themes that we would have come across, that is, the area of sextortion or blackmailing of children. One of our cases deals with a child of nine years of age who would have sent nude pictures of herself to the boys in her class. It is not normal developmental behaviour for any nine year old child to do so but for her, on this particular occasion, that was what she thought would have been expected, and she would have been quite surprised at the reaction to it. Children will take a picture. They will send that to somebody they feel they can trust because they feel they have to do it. Then they will be put under pressure to provide more content, be that more photographs, more explicit photographs or more videos. Children in their teens are getting involved in this activity and the aftermath of that is horrific. These photographs are being shared and put on Snapchat groups. Children are being invited on to these groups so that they can be bullied while they are online in regard to it. Other children are being excluded from all chat forums because they do not want them involved anymore. It is extremely difficult for children to be able to cope with what is going on around them. They have absolutely no control over it. They feel they have no control. They have no knowledge or capability to deal with the aftermath of what has occurred. For them, initially, it was just sending a photograph, thinking, "What is the harm?" It is because they are children.
Online grooming is another area we are very concerned about. Grooming in the past was very much around face-to-face grooming. A person who wanted to cause harm would get involved and get acquainted with the child's family and the parents were being groomed in the same way as the child. The person built up that trusting relationship. Adding on the cyberworld to that, it makes it a lot easier for predators to seek out children and groom a lot quicker. We held a cyber-conference recently at which the Garda presented where it said it can be as quick as three-to-four interactions with a child when the grooming takes place. In many ways, we have to be scared of that.
We have to be scared that children are at risk here. Children do not have the cognitive development or the critical thinking at younger ages to be able to work through this. That is why we need policies to change. We need legislation to change so that we can protect children and on the other hand, have a whole education piece for children, parents, schools, community groups and every professional who is working with children.
As regards online grooming cases, I already mentioned the child who had been groomed by a paedophile ring, but luckily the parent found out about that and was able to report it, act on it and the child was saved from it.
As regards sextortion, we came across a case where two teenage girls met somebody online. They did not know this "boy", as they thought, online and they sent some photographs of themselves in their underwear over the net. Afterwards they were put under pressure because this material was going to be shared in public with their school friends and all the rest of it. There was obvious distress involved in this. When we were teenagers ourselves it was all about fitting in, being with one's peers, and having friends. Teenagers get to a point where their parents become irrelevant and their whole focus is about what their peers think. Much as we parents do not like to think we become irrelevant, we do. What their peers say about them is hugely important. Therefore, if a teenager has taken a picture and their peers turn against them, they will be facing difficulties immediately.
The other key area we came across was identity and well-being, which follows on from the point I was just making. We validate ourselves as teenagers through our contact with our immediate family, relations and extended family. They need good adults within their lives. Cyber identity is forming a huge part in terms of children's development of their own identity, their view of self and the value they place on that. Basically, therefore, we have added a whole new dimension to children's development. We have to accept that children are living in an online world that is not always negative, as my colleague, Ms Long, has already pointed out. We must be sure, however, that when children are online they are safe.
As regards children's self esteem and self worth, in my 20 years with the ISPCC I have never seen as many cases where children's view of themselves is at rock bottom. It is as if children cannot see one good characteristic about themselves because there are about 40 different messages that argue against them. That is scary. One will only be resilient enough to cope with difficulties if one believes that one is special, unique, worthwhile and has some people in life who will be there for support no matter what. A person will not have any coping ability, however, if they do not believe they are worth something and have somebody they can trust to talk to.
That is why 24-hour services are so important. In this country, the only 24-service for children is Childline, which is fantastic. We are delighted to be able to provide it, but that is not good enough. What if there is an immediate risk to a child who is in a situation where they need an immediate rescue? At the moment such a case goes to the Garda. The Garda has been amazing and we have a positive working relationship with it, yet Tusla has to have a responsibility in this area.
Earlier I mentioned the lack of knowledge and skills, which applies to children as well as parents and professionals who work in this area. The first step for all of us is to recognise that this is happening and that it is not a small percentage of children. We all like to think that our own children are not involved in anything, that they are perfect and wonderful, but the reality is that every parent needs to open the lines of communication because every child is involved in social media in some shape, form or capacity, either with or without their parents' knowledge. In the view of the ISPCC this is the child protection issue of our time. Unless we act now we will have to deal with massive unsurmountable issues in future, whereas they could be surmounted now.