Ireland is well placed to lead the way in best practices for safeguarding children and young people online and promoting digital rights

Today (Tuesday, 23rd November 2021), as part of its ongoing 1,2,3 Online Safety Campaign*, the Children’s Rights Alliance hosted a high-profile Online Safety Conference. The conference heard from Leanda Barrington-Leach, Head of EU Affairs at 5Rights and an expert on EU tech regulation and children’s rights in the digital space as well as a panel of youth speakers who shared their lived experiences of the online world.

Leanda Barrington-Leach, Head of EU Affairs at 5Rights Foundation delivered a keynote address at today’s conference which shared insights from the epicentre of tech regulation at a European level. She believes that all EU member states have a role to play to make the internet a safer space for children and that it is achievable to mitigate against the issues children and young people are facing online. She said one of the biggest things to be rebalanced is children’s rights offline and online:

“Today, childhood is lived as much online as offline – 1 in 5 users of the internet in the EU are children but their rights have been trampled online. We treat children differently in the physical world, but online they are treated as equals, i.e., as adults, and they are regularly served up inappropriate content. There has been an unforgivable regression of children’s rights online that should never have happened. A child is a child until they come of age (18), offline and online, and not when they pick up a smartphone.”

On the subject of legislation, Leanda said: “Online safety is not a problem to be solved by parents and children but rather one to be solved by product safety and oversight. You wouldn’t expect parents on the school run to check the safety of the airbags or that the road signs are still there – their duty is to check the wing mirrors, the rest is done by product safety checks. We need to adopt a similar approach online. Human choices are at the heart of how platforms are designed – we need to demand better choices!”

Regarding Ireland’s role at this critical time, Leanda said: “The fact that EU and national legislation are being considered at the same time is great for Ireland. It puts Ireland in a great position to lead the way in best practices/legislation for safeguarding children and young people and promoting digital rights.”

The #123OnlineSafety campaign urges legislators in Ireland to consider the best interests of children and young people in their work finalising the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. At today’s conference, young people explained that they want to be empowered to use online platforms while also demanding better and more effective regulation of these platforms to ensure all young people have a safe and positive online experience. The youth panel featured speakers from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Foróige, National Youth Council of Ireland, and Young Social Innovators.

Jo (17) representing the National Youth Council of Ireland said: “Discrimination and hate speech is all too prevalent in online communities and there are no safeguards to protect young people from seeing this content. The current system isn’t working – Tech companies are not doing enough to stop it.”

Leaving Cert student Aisling (17) representing said: “If the kind of harassment that children are experiencing online was happening offline, there would be an uproar.”

Youth panellists – Áine, Jo, Alec, Lauren, Grainne, Niamh, Sophie, Amy and Aisling addressed a wide range of issues that have impacted their own experience online as well as that of other young people including toxic relationships, education and digital literacy, eating disorders and unhealthy body image as well as positive interactions and support for LGBTI+ young people. Collectively, they delivered some impactful messages for the key stakeholders in online safety as follows:

To Government…

Jo (17) representing the National Youth Council of Ireland said: “You need to act now. It [online safety] has been left long enough and it’s part of your job.”

Sophie and Amy representing Young Social Innovators said: “Put more pressure on the platforms and Apps to take responsibility for what happens online on a daily basis.”

Aisling (17) representing said: “An online safety commissioner will speed up the complaints process. A prevalent figure allows information to be accessible to those who need it.”

To the companies behind the platforms and Apps…

Aine representing the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said: “Hire more people to make sure the reporting process of harmful posts is more effective so that young people don’t feel threatened online.”

Aisling (as above) said: “Recognise that we don’t grow up when we get a phone and that behind the screens are real people.”

Regarding education…

Niamh (17) representing Foróige said: “Young people are taught through fear. We should be teaching young people how to stay safe online and recognise when something isn’t right and teach them how to deal with online bullying.”

Alec (18) representing the National Youth Council of Ireland said: “Although there are negatives, we should look at the positives. I liked it [social media] and didn’t feel alone; I found people and entered into a lot of safe spaces.”

Aisling (as above) said: “We should be taught differently, and an updated safety curriculum is key. We need to know our rights and what we can do ourselves to protect ourselves online.”

Lauren and Grainne representing Young Social Innovators said: “It would help if there was a way of teaching young people how to filter comments.”

Speaking about the key recommendations from the Oireachtas Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media’s Report, following pre-legislative scrutiny of the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, Deputy Niamh Smyth said:

“The online world is like the Wild West – there are no rules! That has had a negative impact on children. I take my role as a regulator for this space very seriously and regulation is long overdue to prevent young people’s exposure to harmful content online.

“The new Bill is expected to come to the house very soon. Everybody is hugely passionate about this and that the 33 recommendations put forward are woven into the Bill.” 

In her closing remarks, Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance said:

“Today demonstrates that children’s rights need to guide everything we do when it comes to the digital world for children and young people and we need to create the opportunities for them to influence and shape what happens legislatively. The solutions lie in safe product design, regulation, an effective toolkit for children to protect themselves in the online world, an effective complaints mechanism, and a robust online safety code for companies to follow.”

“Plus we need to be ambitious – everything we do in Ireland will have an extraordinary impact on regulation throughout the world. We rarely get to be the ones influencing and setting the agenda and we all have a great responsibility now to step up to the plate to set the standard for what happens because it will help children and young people in Ireland and across the globe.”


*The #123OnlineSafety national campaign is coordinated by the Children’s Rights Alliance and includes 16 supporting member organisations: Alcohol Action Ireland, Barretstown, Barnardos, BeLonG To, CyberSafeKids, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Foróige, Irish Heart Foundation, ISPCC, National Youth Council of Ireland, One in Four, Psychological Society of Ireland, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Scouting Ireland, and Young Social Innovators. 

The asks of the #123OnlineSafety national campaign were reflected in the findings of research commissioned by the campaign in recent months. Over half of the respondents said they were directly or indirectly affected by harmful use of online or social media. 91% of the public think the Government should stand up to the big tech companies and set rules that protect the public from harmful or illegal use, and 86% agree that major tech companies have too much power and influence over politics and law. 78% believe that it’s important that the Online Safety Commissioner would have the power to have content or accounts removed enforced by the courts, and 77% think an Online Safety Commissioner should have the power in law to investigate complaints made by members of the public when social media companies fail to uphold the rights of the person.

Also, 76% believe that it’s important that an online safety commission offers an accessible and free complaints process for members of the public who have experienced harmful use of online or social media. The findings demonstrate that the Irish public not only supports but demand better regulation of online platforms and services for themselves, their children and society as a whole.

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