The Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report for 2017 produced by the Office of Communications, Ofcom, in the UK highlights that more younger children are going online. I am not going to read out all of the statistics, people can look at them afterwards, but I will just highlight one or two. At present, 53% of three to four year olds are now online, 1% of three to four year olds have their own smartphone and if one looks at an older age group, 83% of 12 to 15 year olds have their own smartphone, 99% go online for more than 21 hours a week and 74% have a social media profile. It is significant that such a large percentage of young people have a social media profile despite COPPA. This represents a major cybersecurity challenge that must be addressed whereby children under the age of 13 have social media profiles. Evidence is mounting about the harmful effects of social networking sites on the well-being of children including sleeplessness, obesity, compulsive use and vulnerability to advertising. Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood that teens will suffer a myriad of negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
The statistics are worrying as rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the past 25 years. Young people say four of the five most used social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse. A report by the Royal Society for Public Health report states "the platforms that are supposed to help young people connect with each other may actually be fuelling a mental health crisis”. Insomnia is on the rise and one in five young people say they wake up during the night to check messages on social media. They are three times more likely to feel constantly tired at school. Nine in ten teenage girls say they are unhappy with their body and there has been a surge in teenage girls being hospitalised for eating disorders. According to the HSE, the number has almost doubled over ten years. Arguably these increases are linked to the use of social media, along with the availability of such sites as “pro-ana” or“pro-mia” websites, which encourage and glamorise anorexia and bulimia. These sites also influence vulnerable, self-conscious teens. Notably, the negative impact of these sites, along with the availability of harmful and age-inappropriate online content such as violent, aggressive or gory content involving cruelty, abuse of animals and killings, adult pornography, extremism and radicalisation was highlighted in the Irish Internet content governance advisory group report, to which I was a party. Ireland has one of the highest rates of sexting among young people in Europe. The exchange of explicit images presents a significant security risk rendering young people vulnerable to cyberbullying and to sextortion. In 2017 my group at Europol reported that sextortion and webcam blackmailing has skyrocketed in the past few years. It was noted that victims as young as seven years old are being targeted online. This is a whole new cohort of people who have an economic interest in the child, rather than a sexually deviant interest in the child.
Instant messaging apps are problematic in terms of cyberbullying since they can act as rapid vehicles for circulating bullying messages and spreading images. The National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University found that new apps and social media platforms are targeting children as young as nine years of age. Children can be reluctant to tell their parents about the bullying because they are worried that their Internet access will be taken away. Victims of bullying are more likely to experience low academic performance, depression, anxiety, self-harm, feelings of loneliness and changes in sleeping and eating patterns, which is extremely worrying in the context of the overall health and well-being of our children. Teachers are front-line witnesses to these problems. Teachers in the UK have reported a significant increase in children as young as four years suffering panic attacks, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Schools are struggling to access support to deal with the surge in the number of children and young people suffering from mental health issues. The general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, NASUWT, Chris Keates, has warned of growing concern among teachers about a gap in the availability of experts and counselling to help children with mental health needs. A recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network reported that a quarter of its members reported a spike in anxiety levels in their schools. The Growing Up in Ireland study of 2016 found that 10% of 17 to 18 year olds reported that they had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or both by a medical professional; 17% of 17 to 18 year olds - these are Irish children - admitted to engaging in self-harm behaviour.
Setting an appropriate digital age of consent is a complex issue. The decision must be informed by the impact that technology has on the cyber-cognitive and sociological development of children so that we avoid placing them in positions where they neither have the digital skills, nor the understanding of the consequences of sharing their data or aspects of their personal lives. Children need guidance from their parents in this regard.
When it comes to technology and children, the digital age of consent is both a security issue, which is of particular interest to the committee, and a child protection issue. An arbitrary statement that every child at 13 is capable of consenting to the terms and conditions of online service providers is problematic given the potential risks that they face. For example, companies can collect, record and share a children's home and school address, their location, date of birth, photos, phone number, likes and dislikes, who they know, and the content of their conversations, including direct messages sent privately. Not only does that present a security risk to the individual child but, by association, it also presents a risk to the family.
Notwithstanding a young person's right to freedom of speech and to access information, the requirement for verifiable parental or guardian consent for those under the digital age of consent seems entirely appropriate and responsible. The point is that parents and guardians know their child best, and they are the primary custodians of their security and welfare. They are best placed to evaluate properly when it is appropriate to grant consent on behalf of their child. It is only they who can judge appropriately and assess an individual child's level of maturity, understanding and judgment in an online context.
An optimum digital age of consent for Ireland can be informed by best practice in other countries. Notably, liberal EU leaders in child safety and protection online, countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, have chosen 16 years as their digital age of consent. The UK will be enacting an amendment to its data protection law to impose a stricter code of practice for protecting children's privacy online focusing on provisions for 13 to 17 year olds who are above the digital age of consent but still children. The proposed UK amendment has several features designed to deliver on cybersecurity, for example, ensuring high privacy settings are switched on by default, not revealing GPS locations, and preventing data from being widely shared. Additionally, the proposed amendment allows for the well-being of the young person, for example, by giving children time off from endless notifications during school and sleep hours and by requiring commercially driven content presented to children to be clearly identified.
The Irish digital age of consent must be informed by the Law Reform Commission's 2011 report, Report on Children and the Law: Medical Treatment. I sat on the Law Reform Commission's group. The report recommended that when it came to persons under 16, there should not be a presumption of capacity to consent. The 2011 report involved the application of a "mature minor" test , which has been applied in a number of states, sometimes in case law and sometimes in legislation, to a wide variety of legal areas involving decision-making capacity of children and young persons.
It is also worth noting that Article 42A of the Constitution , inserted by the children's rights referendum, also recognises the concept of a "mature minor" test. While Article 42A might not directly apply to the age of consent for the purposes of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, the fact that the Constitution now includes a "mature minor" test is worth noting.
The Garda has stated that it has no substantial difficulty with the digital age of consent being set at 16. Let us remember that the Garda will deal on the front line with the consequences and fallout of problems in this area involving minors. It was recently reported that Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy has criticised the Government for "not serving our children well" with unregulated access to social media websites where they could become victims of online paedophiles. The number of suspected incidents of online child abuse referred to the Metropolitan Police in the UK has increased by 700% since 2014. Reports to the current UK independent inquiry into child sexual abuse estimate that 10% of adults take part in "online sexualised conversations" with children and teenagers aged under 18, as many as 4% of adults have engaged with images of child sexual abuse on the Internet, and 11 to 14 year olds are most at risk from online abuse.
Given the substantial risks to the safety, security and well-being of children and young people online, Ireland needs to put in place a policy framework and an associated educational programme that ensures children are sufficiently aware and responsible to understand and exercise their digital rights by the time they reach the digital age of consent. In the absence of a rigorous basis for any specific age at this point, a prudent approach would be to set the digital age of consent in Ireland at 16. We would both like to say, for the record, that we unequivocally oppose the Government's current position to set the digital age of consent in Ireland at 13 years.