Cybersecurity for Children and Young Adults: Discussion

I call the meeting to order. Apologies have been received from Senators Freeman and Clifford-Lee.

I welcome everyone to the meeting, which will take place over two sessions. In the first, we will hear from the ISPCC on the issue of cybersecurity for children and young adults. In the second, we will hear from Mr. Fred McBride, CEO of Tusla, and some of his colleagues. We will then move back into private session to deal with housekeeping matters. The plan is to break at 10.30 a.m. and get out for 12 noon.

I apologise to our witnesses for the delay in starting the meeting. From the ISPCC, I welcome Ms Grainia Long, CEO, Ms Caroline O'Sullivan, director of services, and Ms Cliona O'Neill, director of policy and communications, and thank them for appearing before the committee and giving of their time.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matters of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode, as mobile phones interfere with the sound system, make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting and adversely affect television coverage and web streaming. I wish to advise the witnesses that any submission or opening statement they have made to the committee will be published on the committee's website after the meeting.

I understand that the witnesses will make a short presentation, to be followed by questions from members. I invite Ms Long to make her opening statement.

Ms Grainia Long

I thank the committee for its interest in this issue, which it can imagine is a priority for the ISPCC, and in hearing our perspective on cybersafety and online safety for children and young people.

We have been working on this issue for many years and members will not be surprised to find that children have informed how we frame the problem and the solutions. Years before the issue of cybersecurity was called that, it had been described to us by children through Childline. It has emerged and evolved over time. Without question, it is the child protection issue of our time. This is a dramatic statement to make, but we do not make it without the evidence to support it.

We separate the issue of technology from access to the Internet and social media. Access to technology is important for children and young people. It is an educational and networking tool and can help to keep them safe. For example, Childline is a form of technology that helps to keep children safe. Our view is not that technology is a bad thing, but we need to distinguish between technology and access to technology from access to the Internet and social media. Regulated and well-managed access to the Internet and social media can also be a useful tool so long as we understand the nature and impact of same and ensure that it is applied in an age appropriate way.

A number of issues have emerged and will probably be discussed often during this meeting. For example, as technology has developed and become more complicated, so have the issues coming to us from children. This is not a simple matter and the problems are not easy to describe, as is often the case with children. My colleague, Ms O'Sullivan, who is the expert in our services area, will take the committee through the case studies and some work that we have been doing to understand the issues for children and young people. The solutions are complex.

Sometimes, I worry that cybersafety and online safety are seen as being so much of an all-encompassing issue that we are in danger of putting it into the "Too Difficult" box. It is not too difficult. If we and policy makers begin thinking of it as too difficult, we will fail our children and young people. We must find solutions and ways in which to keep children safe. It is possible.

We will talk the committee through some of the work that we have done, including an important case review and an internal analysis of our case studies, so that it can understand the emerging themes and trends. We have made some recommendations on legal and policy changes and education.

A distinction needs to be made between technology and use of the Internet and social media, but we also need to make a distinction between what is or should be illegal behaviour online and what is harmful behaviour. Illegal behaviour is simpler to understand and define. For example, the Law Reform Commission has stated that online stalking needs to be prescribed as an offence in law. That would make it easier to detect and prosecute. We agree with that recommendation. Online harassment also needs to be a prosecutable offence.

Cyberbullying is a form of harmful behaviour. Severe and malicious bullying that becomes harassment then becomes a form of illegal behaviour, but we need to understand the two separately. If we do not, we are at risk of criminalising children and young people who often undertake actions online without understanding the consequences. This is one of the issues that will arise at this meeting.

The ISPCC is the national child protection charity. We are probably best known for our Childline service, which is the national listening service. We receive more than 400,000 contacts from children and young people annually, or approximately 1,200 per day. In recent years, children have increasingly chosen online forms of communication to contact us. At a particular age, children are increasingly comfortable disclosing some personal and sensitive issues online through our web chat service. The fact that we have this technology available to us enables us to support and help children. Our one-to-one child and family services, therapeutic services and many other services work with children who have been victims of crime or harmful behaviour towards them online. Often, we work with these children, who have been traumatised in some shape or form and need help, for many months.

We undertook a piece of work last year in which we examined our caseload over a period to understand the emerging issues and the experiences of children and young people online. This is outlined in section 3 of the report. I will hand over to Ms O'Sullivan to talk the committee through it.

Ms Caroline O'Sullivan

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.

I thank Ms O'Sullivan. Does Ms O'Neill want to add anything?

Ms Cliodhna O'Neill

I can respond to the questions quickly. Our overarching recommendation to the committee is that we need a national cybersafety strategy for children. Many members of this committee were able to attend our conference before Christmas where this strategy was outlined by experts, including academics, gardaí and young people. That was the clear outcome from all the consultation work we have been doing. There is work to be done here by various Departments and it needs to be brought together in a coherent fashion by actions and measurements.

Ireland has a cybersafety strategy which is registered with the relevant European Commission agency, but it does not mention children because it is about fraud and keeping business online. Therefore this aspect of it has not been considered across Departments, although it is urgent to do so. That is our key message.

Ms Grainia Long

That is they critical bit. This is solvable but there is a policy choice to be made about how we solve it. It is not too difficult or complex to fix.

I will take questions from the members now.

I thank the delegation for their presentations. I attended the ISPCC conference and it was most enlightening. One could nearly make a road-show of it. I was there not only in my role as my party's children's rights spokesperson but also as a parent, and I found it very informative as the guest speakers were outstanding.

The ISPCC representatives are right in saying that teachers and gardaí have a major role to play in this matter. Being a mother of three, I suppose I am up to speed on everything that has been said. I am approaching this from the parents' angle in seeking to find how we can overcome these challenges.

Just after Christmas, the PSNI published 100 abbreviations they were experiencing in Northern Ireland. Has the ISPCC had any engagement with An Garda Síochána to do something similar? I have telephoned the Garda but has the ISPCC also made a request in this regard? While the PSNI is doing this in the North, parents in the South would like to see what are the top 100 three-letter analogues it is using.

What is the ISPCC's view on the use of mobile phones in schools? Do the witnesses believe in time-out during the school day? One Minister has said that he understands the need for such phones in the classroom so that students can check things, but I thought that was the role of the white board. However, I would like to hear the ISPCC's view on the role of mobile phones in school.

On the question of the providers, such as Vodaphone, Eir, Samsung or iPhone, last summer I wanted to put a time-limit on the phone so that a child could only use it for an hour. I wanted to set that limit on the phone's hard-drive. That could be done on older version of mobile phones, but not on the newer models. Has the ISPCC been in contact with any phone providers about this? I compliment the Vodaphone network because one can change a password remotely, but parents are unaware that they can do so. I can do it when I am up here or at home when my children have access to the phone from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. That facility should be common knowledge, however, and be easily accessible to all. Parents need help and support with such matters.

Ms O'Sullivan was right to say that pressure is coming from peers, while the parent is seen as an oddball who has not got a clue. In fact, however, parents need to hold on to that control. If they have the controls to do so, we will be moving in the right direction but phone providers need to help parents also.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and I am sorry I was late. I keep on top of this topic and raise it in the Seanad a lot. I wonder if initiatives run by CyberSafeIreland could be State funded, or if some level of cybersafety education in schools would be a better approach. Which of those two options would the ISPCC favour?

What can be done to encourage parents to supervise their children? It sounds like a basic question but do we need to have such supervision? There is a lot of awareness now and it is covered in the media more, but are parents really engaging with it? They are busy themselves and children are ahead of adults generally on this topic. How do we alert parents to the gravity of the situation? Do we need to link in some sort of national information campaign?

I have done some work on how advertising targets children concerning obesity and alcohol consumption.

It seems that many companies use social media and the available software to target children. Should we impose a restriction to prevent that practice in our legislation? Should we insist that the software is used instead to avoid targeting children? Can we make companies do so?

Tusla has been in the eye of the storm for the past while. Is Tusla capable of managing this matter? Do we need a one-stop-shop on cybersafety to protect children? We do not need more agencies. I am interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on this matter, without being too hard on Tusla.

I will follow up on the last point. The ISPCC has recommended the establishment of the office of a digital safety commissioner and a policy and regulatory framework in its documentation. The three witnesses have painted a worrying picture but they said there are solutions. What should we do? One measure is to educate children and parents. We need to provide solidarity for parents because children will say, "Mary is allowed to do this. Why don't you let me? Mary takes her phone to bed. Why can't I?" We must convey the message that it is right for parents to advise their child that he or she needs a night's sleep and not to take a phone to his or her bedroom. The hard aspect is discerning what is illegal, what is damaging but is not illegal and identifying them. We need to reach that point. We have begun to identify elements. I attended a conference on the subject. The ISPCC has highlighted the issue, which is important. The next step is to decide what to do and deal with the problem. The ISPCC has suggested a digital safety commissioner. Perhaps that is the way to go. A dedicated office would provide a place for children, parents and everybody else to go and a commissioner would ensure something is done.

Technology keeps evolving. How does one control cybersecurity? How does one legally deal with the issues? It was noted in the presentation that apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp, etc., can be manipulated. I mean one child can change something that another child has typed in earlier in the chat.

Ms Grainia Long


Can the app providers stop that from happening? Can we campaign for the option to be removed? What should we, as an Oireachtas committee, recommend in terms of legislative or organisational measures?

I call Deputy Funchion and she is the last contributor in this session. The other four members will comment after she is finished.

I thank the Chairman. I thank the witnesses for their excellent presentations. They painted a scary picture.

The delegation mentioned a strategy and it was touched on by Senator Noone. Who does the ISPCC believe should roll out the strategy? Is it Tusla? There is a question mark over whether people would have the confidence in Tusla to do such work. Does the ISPCC want a digital safety commissioner to roll out the strategy? There is no point having a strategy if there is no-one to implement it and roll it out.

What is the view of the ISPCC on parental responsibility? Parents needs support. Sometimes parents forgot their responsibilities in this modern age. I do not see how anyone would think it acceptable for a communion age child to have a smartphone. In reality many children of that age will have one but it is ridiculous. Does the ISPCC favour a stronger legal remedy if one's child is found to have bullied a child online or using WhatsApp or whatever? Would the ISPCC recommend imposing a penalty for such behaviour? Parents would sit up and listen fairly fast if there was the risk of a penalty. Education is needed but parents need to tell their child that he or she will not get a phone or use one for a certain period. Parents tend to give into their children's demands too easily nowadays.

Ms Grainia Long

I will work my way through the questions and my colleagues will answer as well. There are three key parts to our view of what a strategy would look like, which will probably cover all of the questions.

I cannot stress enough the importance of formal and informal education in solving this problem. All of the members have mentioned in their comments that education is required for children, young people and parents. I will start with children and young people. To be blunt, our education curriculum does not prepare people for the outside world. We are frankly naive as a society if we think that what we teach children about sex and sexual behaviour is enough to equip them. The sooner we recognise that and it is reflected in our curriculum the better for children and child safety. The national strategy needs to be owned by Government and rolled out by four key Departments. The Department of Education and Skills would play a key role.

In terms of educating children, the curriculum needs to reflect reality. The technology aspect is best suited for a debate on a separate day. There are whole groups of people who will argue the case for more children and particularly girls to study technology. We also need, as part of our curriculum, to recognise the importance of educating young people about sex, sexual behaviour, and online behaviour. The curriculum needs to do this work formally. Other countries do this work as a matter of course. This aspect does not form a sufficient part of our curriculum and we need to fix the situation.

As Ms O'Sullivan has said, a lot more can be done to build resilience. There are national programmes available that will help to supplement and build resilience in children and young people. I do not have a strong view one way or the other whether it is formal education in schools or programmes like CyberSafeIreland are used. I would prefer the matter formalised within the education system. Every time we move it out to other organisations it becomes disparate, whether the schools can afford same and whether the school considers it to be a priority. It is left to either the principal or the board of governors to make it a priority. We need to make cybersafety a national priority and consistently available to children. My feeling is the more formal this is the better.

We have seen good examples of third level educators making training available on consent, for example, and notions of consent for third level students. It means first year girls and boys or young men and women attend consent classes, which is excellent, but it is 12 years too late. If we do not start talking to boys and girls about consent in an age appropriate way, one does not train and teach young people in the same way one does 18 or 19 year olds. We need to talk about these issues earlier in schools. We must help and enable parents to talk about these issues. We undertook a piece of internal research last year on the perceptions of Childline among children, young people and their parents. I was amazed to find that parents will say they are delighted when their children call Childline because sometimes they feel embarrassed to talk to their children about sex. If that view pervades culturally within Ireland then we have a long way to go. We need a formalised system of education that is not at the discretion of boards of governors, principals or patrons. We need a formal system of sex education and education on how to use technology safety. Only then can we say we have equipped our children and young children.

I accept that cybersafety is extremely difficult for parents. Parents have often said to us through our support line that they feel ill equipped because they do not feel they are tech savvy. Our experience is that cybersafety is down to parenting and the standard of communication one has with one's child. We see our children and young can fluently use tablets and technology. People confuse that ability to be tech savvy with the ability to make the right decision online. The decisions that young people make online have nothing to do with their technological ability or that of their parents. Let us take two 14-year olds who are online and they are faced with a decision about whether to send a photo of themselves to somebody who they think they know. More than likely one girl will say "Yes" while the other girl will say "No". The more we understand their environment, psychological make-up and how they have been parented the better.

It is down to issues like that and nothing to do with technology that affects how the young person makes that decision.

Education for parents needs to start and end with the level of communication and resilience they have built in their children over time. We have ideas about how to do that, including support for teachers. I imagine that too often people come before the committee and say our teachers need to be trained to do that. We do not say that on top of everything else teachers have to be responsible for the safety of children and young people online but this needs to be formalised within the curriculum and resourced properly.

I was asked about the law and the office of the digital safety commissioner, ODSC. We spent a great deal of time examining the LRC report and I urge members to read it. It is an exceptional piece work, which gives a substantial overview of digital safety law, where the gaps are and how they can be filled. We strongly agree with the creation of new offences that reflect our online world. Harassment online is different from offline harassment. It works differently and it is more pervasive. As Ms O'Sullivan said earlier, it is extremely difficult to get away from. In this job, I am rarely shocked but I have been shocked over the past year by the emergence of stalking by young people of other young people. We need to be grown up and recognise that and not assume that only adults stalk others. There are ways to recognise this behaviour and it should be made an offence.

However, the LRC has said that in creating new offences, children should not be criminalised in that way. The offences should be created to detect and prosecute adults but we should behave responsibly in taking prosecutions against a child. That would only be done in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the DPP. As Ms O'Sullivan said, we are learning all the time that children and young people feel ill-equipped to make the right decisions online. They often do not understand the consequences of their decisions and it is worrying that we detect a sense of remoteness in children when they have been online for a long period as they lose a sense of empathy. Sometimes when we work with them, it is clear they do not understand the impact of their actions. It is very sad and worrying and Ms O'Sullivan will refer to this again.

The real change that can happen is the ODSC. I am not necessarily a fan of the creation of new offices for the sake of it but this will be different because the office should have a co-ordination role. The LRC suggested the office should have three functions. First, it should co-ordinate all the education work that is in place. There has been a proliferation of organisations doing work in this area, including ours. That is great but a co-ordinating organisation is needed. We also need to make sure there are standards for educating parents and young people in this area. Many good organisations are doing this work but we are less convinced some of them should be going into classrooms educating young people. Second, the office should set standards for industry. We need to be clear that industry needs to play a role. Companies need to step up to the plate to make technology available to children and young people. The office should put a set of guiding principles in place that industry would have to follow. It could then take action. Individuals could contact the commissioner if they wanted information deleted online. The right to have information removed would be placed with the office. If the industry body, ISP, telecommunications provider and so on did not follow the request, action could be taken. It would be a useful office. Third, the office should have an important role in investigating individual cases, That would formalise much of the law in this area and regulate a regulatory policy.

I was asked whether Tusla is the right organisation for that. Several organisations need to be involved. Tusla has an important education function and, therefore, it needs to play a role in this regard but the right organisation needs to be the ODSC because technical experts are needed as well as people who understand the regulation of industries well and who can investigate online safety cases. My preference is that this office does this but we have always felt that Tusla also needs to have a role because it has an education function. That body needs to contribute. Many of the referrals we receive in these cases come to us through Tusla and, therefore, it must be part of the debate.

On the apps question, we spend a great deal of time looking at Facebook, Google and Twitter. Those companies get the scale of the risk to children and young children and they are putting serious resources into this area. Alongside them, there is a long trail of much smaller companies that set out to make money and commercially exploit children and young people. Not all apps do that but app providers and developers need to be regulated. We need to focus on that as much as we focus on the large companies. A great deal of emphasis is placed on these large companies. We were particularly worried by an app called Yellow late last year, which in our view was a dating app targeted at children and young people. It was difficult to find out how well regulated it was and what were the terms and conditions before it went live. Our understanding was it was focused on teenagers and even though the company may well have a different view, the look, feel and language used to market the app were aimed at children and young people. As a result, when we set up an account to examine this, it was obvious to us the terms and conditions were not available in an accessible way to children and young people. If they tried to join the app, it was easy to do so. It should not have been that readily available to children and young people.

Is it still available?

Ms Grainia Long


Deputy O'Sullivan asked whether it is possible to change the content of another user on something like WhatsApp if one child-----

Ms Caroline O'Sullivan

It is possible. We have had cases where children have told that they posted something and then somebody else edited it and shared it and it looked like their post.

Could the app company do something to stop that?

Ms Grainia Long

We feel it should. Any company providing a service should be able to do that. Essentially, it is down to the technology being used. Apps can be integrated with other apps and, therefore, data can be pushed from one app to another. If a company enables that to happen, then it needs to take responsibility for what happens once data are shared across apps and platforms. This area needs much more attention. Ironically, as Ms O'Sullivan said, the national cybersafety strategy considers the digital economy and enabling businesses to prevent fraud, which is incredibly important, but so are our children and, therefore, there needs to be a national understanding that we need to go much further.

That is fascinating. I did not know content could be changed.

Snapchat does not have a minimum age requirement. Anybody could be on the app with any number of friends. Should a minimum age be recommended for access to these apps?

Ms Grainia Long

The general data protection regulation GDPR, has been passed by the European Commission. During the latter stages of its passage, a change was made to enable all EU member states to set age barriers at their discretion. Some states wanted the minimum age set at 13 whereas others wanted it at 14, 15 or 16. We have found it difficult to answer at what age a barrier should be created. The ISPCC throughout its history has shied away from setting age barriers because one 13 year old is very different from another 13 year old or from a 16 year old. We need to be less focused in this regard on arbitrary age barriers and more focused on giving the ODSC the ability and power to set guidelines.

The answer to this will be how the app developer operates and markets to the target audience, rather than making a decision that the app is appropriate for those aged 13 years and upwards because the latter would be difficult to enforce.

The Minister for Education and Skills was in the Seanad yesterday evening for a discussion on the action plan for education 2017. I raised with him a specific point on the proposal to have a wellness subject in the curriculum. I understand it will be possible to make submissions in this regard. Perhaps Ms Long is not aware of that.

Ms Long referred to including this subject on the curriculum. Should it be included in the primary or post-primary curriculum? In my view, it should be taught at primary level because, as with childhood obesity, there is no point in starting to discuss the issue when children are 12 years old.

Does Ms O'Sullivan or Ms O'Neill wish to add anything?

Ms Caroline O'Sullivan

Ms Long covered most of the points. To respond to Senator Noone's question, education on mental well-being and access to online material must start in primary school and must be age appropriate. We should start at a young age and work our way up to ensure children know what is out there when they reach the age of 12 or 13 years and learn how to interact and prevent bad things happening.

Do the witnesses have a view on Deputy Rabbitte's point on telephones in schools?

Ms Caroline O'Sullivan

It is not necessary for children to have telephones in school. If children need to contact home, they should have access to a telephone but they can often do this through the school reception, in which case they would need to know certain telephone numbers.

I agree with Ms O'Sullivan on that important issue.

Ms Cliodhna O'Neill

Ms Long described the Law Reform Commission report as a great piece of work. I agree with her. One of the interesting aspects of the report is that it effectively states that the law alone cannot fix this issue and that education will be key. The Law Reform Commission does not often make such an admission, which makes this a remarkable piece of work in terms of adopting education measures. We need to listen to its views on this issue. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality has indicated that many of the legislative recommendations will be implemented, which is great, but her Department is not responsible for implementing the educational aspects of the report.

A question was asked on the proposal to establish an office of digital safety commissioner. The Law Reform Commission examined the role of the office of Internet safety and one of the issues it identified was with the office's location in the Department of Justice and Equality. The ISPCC has a role in this area through the advisory committee and we understand it is planned to move the office of Internet safety to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In our view, the proposed office of digital safety commissioner would be better placed in either the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment or the Department of Justice and Equality.

A question was also asked on the Garda. The ISPCC regularly interacts with the Garda and we hope to do more work with the force later this year.

On support for parents, as many members will be aware from our conference, the ISPCC has a partnership with Vodafone based on a shared vision of keeping children safe by keeping them connected. As part of this, we have developed some guidelines and support for parents and we will roll out more later in the year through a magazine that will be available nationwide. We hope this will contribute to support for parents but many other organisations are doing good work in this area. Resources were launched for parents as part of Internet safety day last week. The issue is one of disseminating these resources and ensuring parents are aware of them.

I thank the representatives of the ISPCC for their attendance. This is probably the fourth or fifth lengthy discussion I have had on this issue and they never cease to be sobering or frightening. I often reflect that, even five or six years ago, I would have considered myself lucky to have got through the gap. I consider myself even luckier now in that sense. I say this only half-jokingly because change has become even more rapid since my younger brothers were teenagers. We now have another generation for whom everything is changing every one or two years. It is very difficult for parents, in particular, to try to keep up with this change, which, while impressive, can also be overwhelming.

Bullying has always been an issue in schools but I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for children who are unable to escape the problem because it follows them home. That they cannot shelter or get away from bullying must be extremely difficult to deal with for the children involved and their parents.

I strongly support the idea of establishing a digital safety commission. This issue has been raised a number of times. Children must be able to make a significant contribution to any such office because they are the experts in many ways. Something along the lines of a children's advisory committee should be established as part of the new office.

I was not aware of the existence of an office of Internet safety. I ask the witnesses to explain briefly what a digital safety commissioner would do that the office of Internet safety does not already do and what gaps would be filled by the new commissioner.

The witnesses touched on the issue of digital stalking. While I acknowledge that this is not only a matter for legislation, what are the other major legislative gaps in this area?

I am conscious of the witnesses' concern not to criminalise children. Nonetheless, the Garda will have a role in this area. How well equipped is the Garda in terms of know-how, staff and resources to deal with these issues? Must this area be addressed?

What proportion of the calls made to the Childline service relate to complaints or allegations made against other children or actions taken by other children? Is this issue significantly gendered, in other words, is there a significant disparity between the number of complaints made by girls and boys?

I expect there would be some degree of industry push-back against these proposals. While certain elements of the industry are progressive and sensible, does the ISPCC anticipate such a reaction or has it already experienced it?

The witnesses spoke of children and teenagers not feeling good enough, the pressures they face, including the barrage of images and the use of various filters and so forth. This very much mirrors what happens in the adult world where this problem is also prevalent. Much of the behaviour described could be learned from adults. There is a bigger and wider debate involved in this issue to the extent that if something is happening in the adult world, it will definitely happen in the world of children. I fully agree that education will be key but it must be provided across the board, for adults and children. If this is happening in the adult world, we must target it because it influences children.

Have studies been done on learned behaviour, namely, the way in which adult behaviour affects children? Cyberbullying is widespread among adults. For example, people can say anything they like on Twitter. How many tweets have been sent about certain people? This behaviour has come to be socially acceptable and no one bats an eyelid about it. Have studies been done on the damaging effects of such behaviour?

Smartphone use exploded in 2010-11, which means someone who was 14 or 15 years old at the time will be 19 or 20 years old now. If action is to be taken in this area, people of that age should be involved in any groups or think tanks that are established or any research that is done because young adults will be able to reflect on their experience and offer us something that people of my age could not offer because we did not grow up with this technology, even if we use it.

We have fallen far behind the 8 ball, as it were, because digital technology has moved with such speed since 2007-08 when we went mobile. A front-loaded approach is needed, which means hitting this issue hard to ensure the action we take becomes part of culture, the done thing and the norm so that in five or ten years, it will be understood and no longer described as education. This may be a project that we will have to hit in the next five or six years in order that everyone gets up to speed with it. Once we have the basics of digital technology, we have the tools to find everything else we need to solve our problems. This will also be key. I ask the witnesses to respond to my question on whether studies have been done to identify a correlation between adult behaviour and children's behaviour.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation, which was a little mind-blowing. I agree that we should seriously consider establishing an office for digital safety. The rate of automation will increase in the decades ahead. As everything goes digital, we will need someone to be in a position to offer advice and guidance and develop regulation and policy for this area.

Given Tusla's current difficulties with governance, I could not support it being given the lead role in this matter, although I accept that it needs to be involved.

It is the leading child agency in the country.

We must be firm in telling parents to use their heads and stop giving in to the relentless nagging of their children. We have all done it. We have all said, "Wait a minute" or "Just take it now" in response to the constant demand. Our children are programmed to do that but this is the biggest risk to children of our time and we need to tell parents what to do in that regard and give them the guidelines. In that way parents will have the back-up of the State. That may sound as if I am advocating for a nanny state but they will have the back-up of the State in terms of policy and with regard to cultural norms. That is the way we can move forward. It should be appropriate for a parent to say to their child that they cannot have something or that they are restricting the use of something. They should be able to tell a seven year old child that there is no way they are getting a phone. We cannot be fascist and say a child cannot ever do something but we are protecting children and we should tell parents to be parents and do what they are meant to be doing. That is my firm view.

Have the witnesses any notion of the success of Facebook Free Friday and other such campaigns, which challenge children to become involved? They get excited about those campaigns. It is not an issue that is imposed upon them but rather something interesting to them that is trending on Twitter or wherever. They can then choose to get involved in Facebook Free Friday or whatever. That is something we can generate excitement about and get a buy-in, so to speak, regarding that.

I am interested in the role of the Garda. It is difficult for gardaí as well but at present the Garda is the only organisation that seems to be capable of addressing this. We know that as a result of environmental factors or whatever they face in the home environment or outside the home, a certain cohort of children access pornography at an earlier age. We know how difficult it is for an organisation like the ISPCC when it makes a choice to report it. What are its guidelines on that? It is a difficult problem that will become more prevalent the more we allow children access to freeflow of information.

I thank the witnesses and I am pleased to hear the problem is not too complex to fix. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of information in the public domain, and some we do not even know about.

On the issue of the digital commissioner, I published legislation three weeks to establish the office of the digital commissioner and to address the issue of revenge pornography and the altering of images. It is the Harmful Communications and Digital Safety Bill, which I hope will progress through the Dáil.

I believe education is the key. I studied the Finnish model and I am sure the Chairman, as a former member of the education committee, would undertake an examination of various international models. Are there any international models the witnesses could envisage being implemented here? Online bullying starts at a very young age in primary school and the difference between the Scandinavian model and what we have implemented in recent years is that the model was put on a statutory footing in Scandinavia. Many of the initiatives we have implemented in this State have been on an ad hoc basis. It is up to individual schools to implement their own policies. I published legislation about two years ago to try to make that a statutory provision but, unfortunately, it was voted down. Do the witnesses have any opinions on whether legislation to deal with bullying in schools, and international best practices, should be put on a statutory footing?

It is a seismic change in society that the greatest threat to our children is the mobile phone. God be with the days when we were all afraid of the bogeyman around the corner who we believed would do whatever to us but the biggest threat to children now is carried in our pockets.

In terms of this committee, an over-arching body of work is needed to get a whole-of-Government strategy and legislation to catch up with this area. The difficulty is that the Internet is ever-changing and therefore the threats are ever-changing, with new ones emerging all the time. It is difficult to keep up legislatively in terms of getting the curriculum changed and having all the bodies dealing with this area talking to each other. I do not believe this Government will last the length of time needed to try to achieve the establishment of a commissioner's office and so on.

In terms of this committee trying to focus on one aspect and having listened to all the contributors, and in terms of our own bias, many of us are parents and we have a particular concern. We understand the issues very well but there is fear in dealing with this issue. The words "Instagram", "Snapchat" and others terrify parents. We hear terms such as "All you have to do is fix the router" or references to the modem but all those terms create a blank wall for people of a certain generation, including my own. In light of this what would be the view of the witnesses on a committee such as this one compiling a user guide for parents that would offer simple suggestions, such as children not having their phones with them in school. Parents feel that if every other child in the school has their phone with them they should allow their child to have it. Another suggestion would be to tell parents to take the phone out of the child's bedroom at night. If we suggest that a child or teenager should not be on their phone after 9 p.m., I believe parents would react positively to that because they probably feel they are the only ones not allowing that. I discovered by chance about six months ago that I could fix the modem at home and turn off the Internet for a number of hours every day.

Or a week. The Chairman showed me how to do it.

I imagine that parents do not know many of the basic steps in that regard but I hope this committee could take a practical approach to that, in tandem with trying to drive the over-arching objectives the witnesses have set. I do not want to take from what they have said but it is about being more real in that sense.

Has the Ombudsman for Children played much of a role in this area? What relevance has his office here?

Ms Grainia Long

If I could leave the committee with a thought it would be that while there is a real fear that technology and phones are a risk to children, I would think of it in a different way. It is the people who have always tried to access children for exploitative or abusive reasons who are using technology as a tool. That is the way they are doing it today. When I spoke earlier I told the members to think differently and separate the illegal behaviour from the harmful behaviour. Unfortunately, there are predators who will try to access children for exploitative or criminal means and they will use technology to do that. It is our job to make it very difficult for them to do it. That is where the law and a strong regulatory approach comes in. It will be a complex task and it will take time, but we must do it because ten years from now we will wonder how we did not see that children would be more exposed. The behaviour of predators is changing. They are using technology as a faster way to access children. As Ms O'Sullivan said, the Garda has given some frightening examples of conversations between children and young people who, within three to four minutes of the person saying "hello" to a child, sex was being mentioned; in some cases it was far sooner than that.

In terms of what can be done, the Garda has a very important role. We have had some very good conversations with gardaí about the potential of running a national campaign. It is their view, and ours, that the gardaí are recognised by children and young people as the law enforcement organisation and something we, or Childline, could do is go into schools to talk to children and young people so that they understand the dangers. As Ms O'Sullivan said, many young people are too scared or ashamed to talk about this issue.

There are practical things parents can do, and we said this in January.

Parents buy phones and tablets before Christmas. We tell them that Christmas is a busy time and that, when life has slowed down in January, they should return to their providers and ask them to help set controls on devices. We should get that message out in as simple a way as possible. One set of controls is handled through an Internet service provider, whereby access to the web at home is controlled, and another set of controls is on the handset itself. We tell parents that they should take a breath in the new year, set those controls and educate themselves. If they do not understand how to do that, they should ask their providers to do so. Many of the providers with whom we have spoken have told us that they are more than happy to help set up controls for customers who bought devices from them.

As was alluded to, children and young people themselves have told us that they want to be safe. Why would any child not want to be safe? Parents should sit down with the young person. Older siblings are helpful in this regard. For example, 16, 17 or 18 year olds can set controls for children.

It is right to say that practical and immediate actions are necessary, but I would love to see a national campaign. We need to start opening parents' consciousness without scaring them, because if people get scared, they stop making the right decisions. We should tell them that they have more choices and ability than they realise. They can ask their providers for help and speak to their older children or older children in the neighbourhood, young people and students who are attending university. That might help to open up the situation.

We were asked what the office of a digital safety commissioner would do and what the legislative gaps would be. As the LRC stated, that office should have a strong relationship with the Children's Ombudsman, who would have a role to play in this matter. The digital safety commissioner's office would have an educational role. It could run national campaigns regularly in the same way as the Road Safety Authority, which does a fantastic job at running safety campaigns at various points in the year. It is running one this week because it is the mid-term break and children are off school, so people should drive carefully in highly developed residential areas. The "Office of the Digital Safety Commissioner" is a very technical term, so it could be called something else and be made an open and educational office. I like the idea of having children and young people involved. They would have to be because that is the only way it can be done.

Before Ms Long moves on from that point, I also asked how it would differ from the Office for Internet Safety.

Ms Cliodhna O'Neill

The LRC goes into the matter in more detail. A digital safety commissioner's office would have additional powers and specific interactions with providers in terms of take-down procedures. The Office for Internet Safety has more of an advisory role whereas the digital safety commissioner would have more power. I can follow up directly with the Deputy and set out the differences.

Ms Grainia Long

First and foremost, it would have the power to set standards that industry providers would have to meet. This is the point that we have all reached, and everyone working and making money in this space needs to be meeting national standards. If something has been said online about a parent or young person and he or she would like that removed, he or she should be able to approach telecom companies or Internet providers under the auspices of those standards and demand that it be taken down. If the provider does not take it down or decides not to, the office would step in and investigate. This is an important point and has been the process in other jurisdictions. It would give the commissioner considerable power. The Office for Internet Safety does not have the ability to investigate and regulate, given that it is an advisory body. A digital safety commissioner's office would formalise the regulatory ability.

Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the special rapporteur on child protection, mentioned in his last report the right to be forgotten. This issue has arisen. We agree with his view that people should have the right to be forgotten in terms of actions that they take as children. When people apply for their first job or a particular course years later, someone might Google them and find out about something that they did six or eight years ago. Dr. Shannon has recommended that the law be changed to enable the right to be forgotten. It is a good idea.

Regarding parents, I have mentioned the need for a national campaign. The Taoiseach is on record as saying that we need to have a national conversation about pornography. We welcomed that statement, but the conversation cannot be discretionary. Too many schools can choose what they teach children when it comes to sex education and safety. We are failing children by not having a national vision of what should be explained to children at the right age. Many experts could do this well. We are starting to see the impact of not having done this ten years ago, in that children are making the wrong decisions online or are unaware of what decisions they are taking.

I will revert to the question of the two 14 year old girls, one of whom made the right decision and the other who made the wrong decision. Who are we failing and why is one person not making the right decision?

I apologise, as I cannot remember who asked about research, but it is an emerging area. Interestingly, Irish universities are leading the way in the field of cyberpsychology, that is, understanding online behaviour and how it affects our psychology. Dublin City University has a good department, so it may be worth inviting those involved to tell the committee about cyberpsychology. The Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire has a department of cyberpsychology. There is a growing field of experts and academics. I am sure that there are others, but those are the two that come to mind. There have been good studies.

Someone asked about push-back from industry. On Monday, I was in London chatting with the NSPCC about this matter and Brexit. Ironically, the two issues are starting to come together. Predators do not recognise borders and will use technology to work around them to get to children. It is important that Ireland not lag behind other countries. While the industry will have its own views and elements of it will be sceptical or progressive, it will need to come to the party because this is happening. The UK has made good strides in terms of changing the law. The Digital Economy Bill, which is going through the House of Commons, will begin regulating the industry in new ways. The communications committee of the House of Lords is about to complete an inquiry into children and the Internet. This is happening in other jurisdictions. The same bodies will work in London and Dublin. Unfortunately, so will people who want to access children.

Ireland can show leadership. Many tech and telecom companies base themselves in Dublin and other cities. I am happy to chat with committee members at any point about our concerns over the UK's exit, but we are really concerned that Brexit will undermine some of our ability to detect and prosecute child sex abuse and exploitation. That discussion may be for another day.

Fascinating. I thank Ms Long. Do the witnesses wish to make final comments?

Ms Caroline O'Sullivan

I will respond to the question on the level of contacts via Childline. On average, 400,000 children and young people contact the Childline service every year via phone, text and one-to-one web chats. Of telephone calls, 75% come from boys. Nearly the same percentage of online contacts are from girls. It is interesting that boys choose the phone while girls choose the online and text services. Ten years ago, very few boys contacted the service. We differ from every other helpline across Europe, in that they are trying to engage more boys. We have made strides in our ability to engage boys.

How does the ISPCC do that, if Ms O'Sullivan does not mind me asking?

Ms Caroline O'Sullivan

We have a different approach. For those boys who might be listening, I do not mean to make a generalisation, but when they contact us because something is happening, they can sometimes be quite aggressive. The international way of dealing with that is by telling them that a service will not talk to them if they speak like that, but we tell them to take their time because we know that they are angry and ask them to tell us why they are angry. We accept a level of that behaviour in order to engage boys, but it has been successful and we have maintained the 75% figure. The online services see more girls. We believe that this is because girls are a bit more advanced in terms of using helping services. Boys are now at the phone level and will most likely move on to the online level, which is what we are seeing generally.

On complaints by children about other children in regard to cyberbulling, sextortion and those areas, it is their peers they are talking about, their school friends or friends of friends. However, in other areas, such as grooming, it is strangers and individuals they do not know but have been friends with, have been following or have been followed by for a long period of time. When we work with children, one of the things we ask them is to tell us about their friends. They will say they have 500 friends on Facebook or 300 likes on Snapchat. The numbers are enormous. However, if we ask children who they would actually talk to if they had a real worry, they find it very difficult to name one person. That is very significant in the context of where children can go in terms of help seeking behaviour and that is why they come to Childline and those types of services. The majority of complaints are about peers but there are occasions when it is the adult predator who is actually seeking out a child through social media.

I sincerely thank the three witnesses for their time. This meeting is a beginning and not an end, hopefully. It is an issue we, as a committee, will be coming back to. I thank the witnesses for their expertise in giving us a steer on where we should go on the issue. We will keep in touch with them to let them know what we propose to do.

Sitting suspended at 10.30 a.m. and resumed at 10.40 a.m.