How to keep your children safe online in Ireland
As children spend more time online, ensuring it’s a safe space is ever more important. This guide can help parents talk to children about life online, recognise potential dangers and take steps to reduce risks.
How children and teenagers are using the internet
The way that children use the internet is changing all the time.
The most recent research from the CSO indicates that 76% of Irish households with children had fixed broadband and 39% had mobile access - with many homes using both.
Most home entertainment needs online access, so children are connecting via devices like:
The use of internet-enabled devices in schools is also a growing trend.
Primary and secondary schools in Ireland use tablets, laptops and desktops for learning in the classroom and for homework. Since the pandemic, homeschooling and online teaching have also become more commonplace.
Students use online learning platforms, emails, messaging and video-calling to communicate both inside and outside the classroom. However, most of these methods are dependent on a safe and reliable broadband connection, which many Irish households lack.
Recognise the risks
The first step to protecting your children online is to identify and understand the most common risks they could face.
Cyberbullying is a type of bullying that happens online, usually on a social network like Instagram or TikTok. It might be in the form of a hurtful comment about a photo, a threatening text message, or the spread of fake news.
When targeted, children often become withdrawn and depressed and quickly believe what’s being said about them is true. At its worst, cyberbullying can lead to eating disorders, self-harm or even suicide.
The Internet Matters website offers practical ways to protect your child from cyberbullying.
Content may be inappropriate if it causes distress and upset, leads to dangerous behaviour, or is adult in nature. Examples include material that is:
- Explicitly sexual
- Violent towards people or animals
- Racist, homophobic or promoting hate crime
- Full of expletives
- Promoting self harm or other dangerous behaviours
- Promoting gambling, drinking or drugs
For advice on how to protect your child against unwanted content, visit the ISPCC website.
This is where a child is targeted online by someone posing as a friend that they start to trust.
Once trust has been built, the child is tricked or pressured into doing something of a sexual nature. The groomer may retain the evidence and, under the threat of publishing it, conduct ongoing sexual abuse.
To find out more about how to protect your child from online grooming, visit the Internet Matters website.
Sharing personal details like a home address and phone number could leave children open to identity theft and harassment.
The danger of sharing private information is that it’s very difficult to retract. Once information is shared publicly online, it could be exposed to a large number of people and fall into the wrong hands.
Phishing is a fake email, text or message that often includes a link to a fake website. Scammers may trick a victim into clicking the link or sharing personal details or financial information in exchange for something they might want.
For help recognising the signs of a scam or what to do if you’ve been scammed, visit the Citizens Information website.
How to spot the signs
A recent study found that 28% of children in Ireland have been victims of cyberbullying at some point in their lives, and the problem is increasing.
Other research has found that 60% of cyberbullying victims have NOT told their parents.
It’s important for parents to pay attention to children’s behaviour, both on and off their devices. Being alert to changes in your child’s behaviour can help prevent problems escalating.
Here’s some warning signs to look for:
- Uneasy, nervous or scared about going to school or outside
- Nervous or jumpy when texting or using social media
- Upset or frustrated after going online or gaming
- Unwilling to discuss or share information about their online activity
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain, headaches, stomachaches, or eating issues
- Trouble sleeping at night or sleepy during the day
- Loss of interest in favourite hobbies or activities
- Seems depressed or withdraws from close friends and family
- Talks about suicide or self-harm
How you can help
The more aware you are of potential risks, the better equipped you’ll be to handle them.
By understanding what children and teenagers can go through online, you’ll be more alert to the signs. We’ve collected a range of resources to help you further understand how your child might be targeted and what you can do to help.
Advice and support for parents
Reduce online risks
Here are some practical things you can do to reduce risks and encourage the right online behaviour.
When your child is young, it’s about limiting what they can access online, but as they get older setting boundaries and explaining why could be more beneficial.
1. Set boundaries
By setting out some rules about internet usage, you’ll have more control over any potential risks. For example, you can control:
- Screen time: For younger children, you could use a timer to limit how long they spend. For older kids, try to stick to a regular slot each day. Internetmatters.org has some great tips on managing your child’s screen time.
- Internet before bed: The blue light emitted by laptops, smartphones and PCs can make us feel stimulated instead of restful. Ask your children to turn them off at least an hour before bedtime. Poor sleep can lead to irritability, poor concentration, difficulties in learning, increased stress levels, and behavioural problems.
- Where they use the internet: Encourage them to use the internet in a communal part of the house, so you can keep an eye on what they’re viewing and have some involvement in their sessions.
- The devices they use: Only give children their own device when you think they’re ready. As well as posing risks, a phone could also enable them to contact you in an emergency and even trace their whereabouts.
2. Set up parental controls
Parental controls allow you to manage the content your children can access. They allow you to block certain websites and filter out inappropriate content across different devices.
You can also monitor your children’s internet usage, track their screen time and automatically turn their devices off for periods of time.
Always check the terms and conditions of any sites and apps your child uses, and choose the right privacy settings.
- Computer operating systems
- Smartphones and tablets
- Internet browsers
- Search engines
- Video sites
- Games consoles
Social networks and privacy settings
Each social network has tips for parents on the best ways to stay safe and secure using their apps.
The following links will help you select the right privacy settings and explain how to block someone or report an issue:
You’ll also find links to resources that can support your child if they do suffer any abuse online.
3. Set up internet security
Installing anti-virus software on each device and keeping it up to date will help to minimise risks if you do suffer a cyberattack caused by a scam.
You don’t always have to pay for this software, but you may get added protection with packages you do pay for.
Always check the legitimacy of any software before you download it.
There are plenty of independent review sites to help you choose a security package, and you can also check out their website and ensure it starts with HTTPS so you know it’s secure.
Increase data security
It’s also important to educate your children not to:
4. Use two-factor authentication (2FA)
Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an extra layer of security when you’re accessing a device or confirming a transaction. As well as a login and password, a second factor is required, which is usually a one-off code you’ll receive by text.
2FA can also be used to prevent children from signing into a service that’s blocked or purchasing something without your approval.
If the 2FA has been set up using your number, you’ll be alerted to any prohibited login or purchase. You can then either block it or allow it to go ahead by confirming your password and the unique code.
Teach your child about internet safety
Educate your child about the dangers of the internet by showing them how to spot and deal with risks. This will have the biggest impact on their future safety.
What else you can do
Here’s a few more ways to ensure your children is empowered to stay safe and protected online:
Internet safety FAQs
How do I know which apps are safe for my children?
Common sense media has put together some ultimate guides for parents on the latest apps trending and some of the old favourites.
Their reviews help you to understand what each app does and whether it’s safe, along with plenty of links to other helpful resources.
How much screen time should my child have?
This is really tricky to answer, especially with so many different devices and uses for the internet. It’s likely to depend on a number of factors such as:
- Your child’s age: The younger they are, the less time they should spend online, but any child who is sensitive to too much screen time should also be closely monitored.
- What they’re using it for: If it’s used for educational purposes as well as leisure, you should take this into account, otherwise they could exceed their daily allowance just on schoolwork.
- How it affects them: If you notice your child’s behaviour, sleep, mood, friendships or schoolwork being negatively impacted by the amount of screen time they have, it’s even more important to monitor/reduce it.
- What their peers are doing: You shouldn’t feel pressured to do the same, but chatting to their friends’ parents may help you gauge whether you’re being too soft or too harsh.
There are lots of resources available to help you manage screen time, like those found on internetmatters.org. However, how much time they spend online is ultimately up to you.
Creating a healthy balance between online and offline activities is the best thing to aim for, all within agreed wake up times and bedtimes.
Nothing is ever set in stone. Don’t worry about increasing or reducing screen time if it’s not working, but try and involve your child in the rule setting as they’ll be more likely to comply.
How old must you be to have social media accounts?
Most social networks allow users aged 13 and above to have an account, but until they’re 16 (the digital age of consent in Ireland), the way their data can be used is restricted.
Data protection laws protect children’s personal data from being collected, used, processed or stored for marketing, profiling or micro-targeting without parental consent, until they are 16.
Webwise.ie explains more about the digital age of consent.
What age should my child have their own smartphone?
This depends on lots of factors, including things like:
- Their level of maturity
- Their behaviour when using other phones/devices
- Whether their peers have phones
- How you feel about it
- What they use it for
- The safety measures you put in place
If your child can responsibly use another device or your phone and respects boundaries like when, where and how they can use it, they may be ready for their own phone.
If you’re not comfortable they will follow the rules when you’re not around, it’s probably not the right time.
Setting up parental controls will offer some protection against inappropriate content for your child, webwise.ie explains how to do this.
Whether they have their own phone or not, they’ll still be exposed to the internet, so, the most important thing is to keep communication open with your child.