Children up to the age of 12 who play games online and have social media profiles are being contacted by people they don’t know in real life, a new report has highlighted.
ccording to the annual report of children’s charity CyberSafeIreland, published today, the findings are worrying in the context of a report published this month by Interpol highlighting concerning trends in the production and sharing of child sexual abuse material online.
That report said gaming platforms continue to be used for the distribution of child sexual exploitation and abuse material and as a means for offenders to make contact with children.
But it noted countries are reporting no significant changes in the volume of cases of children being targeted by sexual offenders on these platforms since lockdown.
CyberSafeIreland’s survey showed 31pc of children game with people they don’t know in real life and 61pc of children reported being contacted by a stranger in a game.
Charity CEO Alex Cooney stressed this included other children and certain games have a multi-player functionality that encourages such interaction, which parents should be aware of.
“If you are playing an online game it can be fairly normal (to be in contact with someone you don’t know in real life).
“We need to empower children to make good choices, to know that not everyone is who they say they are,” she told the Irish Independent.
“If the contact is about the game – fine, but don’t share personal information or respond to people looking for information, for example, over private messages.”
She said it was a modern version of the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ message – but one that should be more empowering for youngsters.
“Don’t talk to a stranger in a white van, that can be a fairly negative message.
“We want to give children the tools to be aware of the dangers online.
“It’s more empowering than ‘don’t talk to strangers’.”
Almost a third (30pc) of children have friends/followers on social media platforms that they don’t know in real life.
The survey found 65pc of children are signed up to social media and messaging platforms despite minimum age restrictions of at least 13 on all of the most popular platforms.
This was an 8pc increase on last year’s findings. The digital age of consent in Ireland is 16.
To compile the report, CyberSafeIreland surveyed 3,764 children aged between eight and 12 in schools over the last academic year.
Among the other findings was that 93pc owned their own smart device and 65pc have their own accounts on social media and instant messaging apps. “This means that the vast majority of children own a device that connects to the internet and that many are active online,” it said.
Ms Cooney pointed to one recent case which highlighted how predators use the internet to target children.
In January 2018, Matthew Horan, from St John’s Crescent in Clondalkin, was jailed for nine and a half years for sexually exploiting girls as young as nine on social media.