In the latest school year, a startling 25% of primary school children between the ages of 8 and 12, and a higher 40% of secondary school children aged 12-16, have found themselves victims of cyberbullying. The CyberSafeKids Annual Trends and Usage report also reveals a gender disparity within these figures: girls have been subjected to online bullying at a higher rate of 43% compared to 30% of boys.
Disconcertingly, the freedom of internet access for these young children is relatively uninhibited. Of all 8 to 12 year olds surveyed, 31% have unrestricted online access, 93% own a smart device, and 84% are registered users of social media or instant messaging apps. YouTube is the preferred app for children, with 76% usage, followed by WhatsApp at 39%, and Tik Tok and Snapchat both at 37%.
Moreover, the report noted that there were instances of minors accessing age-restricted platforms like OnlyFans, an 18+ subscription service linked to adult content creation. This research was conducted in collaboration with CyberSafeKids, a national online safety charity offering guidance to primary and secondary schools. A group of over 5,000 children aged 8 to 16 was surveyed during the 2022-2023 academic year.
Teachers are not immune to these internet safety challenges, with 62% having confronted online safety incidents and 74% identifying online safety as a significant issue in their schools. The report found that young girls (26%) are more likely than boys (18%) to post videos online, whereas boys are more likely to engage in over-18 games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.
Common forms of cyberbullying include non-consensual photo sharing, fake profile creation, and social media exclusion. Worryingly, 28% of younger and 34% of older children admit to concealing instances of cyberbullying. The report also raises alarm over the high percentage (42%) of young boys who confess to online gaming with strangers.
The research also exposes an alarming gap in online safety knowledge among children. Reportedly, 22% of the surveyed 8-12 year olds upload videos and 17% are unaware of how to manage their privacy settings. Over a quarter of the respondents have encountered distressing online content in the past year, content that frightened, upset, or shocked them. However, almost half of the younger children (46%) and 67% of the older kids did not confide in a parent or trusted adult about these encounters.
The report documents a particularly grave incident, in which a primary school principal was informed of a group of 15 boys in sixth class sharing abusive and pornographic content on a well-known app. In such cases, the police should be involved due to the presence of a child victim and the illegal dissemination of harmful content.
Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeKids, contends that the safety of children online remains a critical issue, inadequately addressed by Ireland’s education system and social media companies. Cooney laments the prevalence of unsanitized, unsupervised online exposure for children, which increases risks of bullying, grooming, and exposure to violent or sexual content. Despite reporting these trends for seven years, he feels there is still insufficient action.
Also agreeing with the report’s findings is Carmel Hume, principal of Presentation Primary School in Terenure. She highlights how the normalization of negative online commentary and intimidation in group chats lead to children feeling disempowered. She emphasizes that nuances of direct, face-to-face communication are getting lost in this digital era.
The report also studied respondents identifying as non-binary, revealing that this demographic experiences more negative online interactions than other groups. This includes 74% of them having been cyberbullied and a further 63% witnessing or experiencing distressing online content.