Age checks for social media aimed at protecting primary schoolchildren are ‘broken’, says Norma Foley

Up to half of sixth-class pupils included in Snapchat groups in some schools

Social media platforms must introduce “robust” age verification systems to protect primary schoolchildren from inappropriate content such as sexually explicit images and self-harming videos, Minister for Education Norma Foley has said.

Many social media platforms – TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook – have an age limit of 13. However, Ms Foley said these were very easy to get around, and there was clear proof that age-verification systems were “broken”, with up to up to half of sixth-class pupils in Snapchat groups in some cases.

She has written to the Online Safety Commissioner saying “it is no longer tenable for social media platforms to stand idly by”, and called for more robust age checks to be included in a new online safety code. These could, for example, include photographic ID coupled with photo submission. “They have a duty of care to young people to do this,” she wrote.

Ireland’s first online safety code will require social media and video-sharing platforms to protect children from harmful content or face the prospect of fines of up to €20 million. Coimisiún na Meán, Ireland’s new body for regulating broadcasters, on-demand services and online media, is finalising the code which is due to be completed by the autumn.

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The draft code states that online platforms based in Ireland will be required to address cyberbullying; online content that promotes or encourages a feeding or eating disorder; and online content that promotes or encourages self-harm or suicide.

Ms Foley urged the commissioner to ensure the final version of the online safety code also provides for a system of robust age verification for social media platforms.

Some social media firms, such as Meta and X, told an Oireachtas committee recently that age checks should be carried out by app stores. Ms Foley said those suggestions were “just trying to transfer responsibility on to someone else to solve the problem and I do not accept this as a solution at all”.

She noted that a recent review of online harm completed for Coimisiún na Meán found that many children stated that social media platforms are often where they unintentionally encounter sexually explicit material or videos depicting self-harm.

There was a further problem of algorithms used by social media platforms where violent or sexually explicit can be directed to the user, resulting in further consumption of age-inappropriate content.

Ms Foley also noted growing evidence that the prevalence of smartphone use by children has created “a new, horrifying opportunity for them to be groomed” by online predators using false identities. In addition, she noted that the review documented an increase in so-called “self-generated” sexual material, whereby children are coerced into producing sexual imagery of themselves.

She said she was shocked to learn that Hotline.ie, Ireland’s national centre for combating illegal content online, had to remove almost 14,000 pieces of confirmed child sexual abuse material in 2022, an increase of more than 2,500 per cent since 2017. This was causing a “horrendous impact” on children who are victims of child sexual abuse, leading to panic attacks, depression, problems at school, eating disorders and increased risk of suicide.

Ms Foley said she was working with parents to promote whole-school agreements to avoid buying smartphones for their children at primary level, on foot of an initiative which began in Greystones, Co Wicklow, last year.

Christ the Saviour National School in Ballingarry, Co Limerick, is the latest school to adopt a voluntary “no smartphone” code, after 93 per cent of parents voted to adopt the policy. Under this agreement parents commit to refraining from providing their children with smartphones or social media accounts until they complete primary education.

“By delaying smartphones until after primary school we aim to help our children focus on learning, exercise, reading, playing outdoors and developing important social skills,” said Gemma Brady, chairperson of the parents’ council.

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