Shock survey 61pc of children under 12 'have been contacted by a stranger in online games'
- 93pc have digital device, survey of 3,764 kids shows
- A third have found disturbing content
Children up to the age of 12 who game online and have social media profiles are being contacted by people they don't know in real life, a new report has highlighted.
According to the annual report of children's charity CyberSafeIreland, published yesterday, the findings are worrying in 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.
The 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.
CyberSafeIreland CEO Alex Cooney said 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 Herald.
"If the contact is about the game - fine, but don't share personal information or respond to people looking for information 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."
More boys than girls reported online contact with someone they didn't know in real life, at 40pc compared to 22pc.
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 past 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.
In one case, he threatened an 11-year-old that he would circulate naked pictures of her to her friends if she refused to send him more.
"Parents need to know that these predators cast the net wide, they tend not to use just one platform," Ms Cooney said.
CyberSafeIreland's head of education and innovation, Philip Arneill, said asking children to never chat to people they don't know in the context of an online game can be a challenging message to get across.
He said this was because many see it as part of the game and entirely normal.
"Whilst we would always encourage kids to never engage online with people they don't know offline, the key message needs to be about never sharing personal information with strangers online and to talk to a trusted adult if anything or anyone they encounter online makes them feel scared or uncomfortable.
"We must also put more pressure on the online platforms to promote a safer user culture, by adopting a 'safety by design' approach," he said.
The survey also asked children if they ever came across content online that bothered them.
This was defined as something that made them upset, scared or something they wished they hadn't see.
Most responded 'no', however 32pc reported they had and 12pc weren't sure.
Of those children that had encountered disturbing content online, 57pc reported it to a parent or trusted adult but 20pc of children reported that they had kept it to themselves.
It also looked at how teachers were dealing with issues in the classroom and found 60pc are dealing with online safety incidents like cyberbullying, with 80pc saying online safety is a significant issue in their school.