A UNICEF Ireland youth advocate today met the Taoiseach to highlight the growing online risks facing children. Sixteen-year-old Donnacha Lenehan spent the day at Government buildings with Taoiseach Micheál Martin to voice his concerns about issues like online privacy, disinformation and the mental health impacts of social media, as well as to call for greater protection for children online.
Like many young people of his generation, Donnacha spends much of his free time online, experiencing both its opportunities and risks. And as a passionate advocate for protecting children’s rights, Donnacha won UNICEF Ireland’s 2022 #KidsTakeOver competition and had the opportunity to share his message directly with the Taoiseach.
Speaking following the meeting, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “Digital and online platforms offer immense opportunities for social connections and learning, but they also pose challenges and risks, especially for our young people. I really enjoyed meeting Donnacha today and hearing his important message – that we should all be aware of the risks of social media, and work to ensure that every child is safe and thrives online. The childhoods that Donnacha and his peers are experiencing are profoundly different to those of the generations before them. We do need to reflect on how children and young people are being influenced and impacted by social media and everyone involved needs to be accountable and responsible for ensuring that children and young people are protected online.”
For Donnacha the meeting with the Taoiseach offered him a unique opportunity to highlight the experiences of children and young people online, “I was delighted to be able to share my perspectives and experience with the Taoiseach. As young people, we depend on the Internet. We use it constantly. We connect with friends. We work and play on it. We use it to create new things and to contribute to communities we are interested in. However, like most things, the Internet, and social media in particular, has its downsides. My main point today was that I feel social media is having a bigger impact on the real world than many people think.”
In a constantly changing online world, and with research into the impacts of online use still unclear, Donnacha feels strongly that children and young people need more protection, especially on social media. “We rely on social media to communicate and socialise. But that dependency also makes children and young people extremely vulnerable to scams, doxing, and cyberbullying, which is becoming a lot more common. Social media is designed to be extremely addictive and I question how positive that is for our physical and mental health. A real danger of social media is that is so new and we don’t fully understand how it works on our brains and the long-term effects it may have on us.”
In his meeting with the Taoiseach, Donnacha spoke about the opportunity that Ireland has, as home to many of the world’s leading social media companies, to take a lead on protecting children online from issues like disinformation. “Another big issue is disinformation. We’ve seen in recent years how it causes fear, hate, uncertainty and divides us during the most troubling times – potentially threatening democracy and our society. In many ways, our experience on social media is influenced by algorithms that are designed to meet the business models of the technology companies – not the interests of our society. However, many of these companies have their European Headquarters here in Ireland. And therefore, does Ireland not have a responsibility to ensure their practices meet the highest standards in terms of protecting children’s rights? We have the power to act and Ireland should lead, not follow.”
Heralding Donnacha’s message that all children should be enabled to thrive in a digital environment, UNICEF Ireland Executive Director Peter Power said: “Donnacha powerfully articulates some of the risks and dangers that his generation is experiencing online, and we commend him for raising these important issues with the Taoiseach today. More research is required to fully understand the impact of social media use on children. However, what we know is that Governments and social media companies must be accountable for children’s health and safety online. We thank the Taoiseach for welcoming Donnacha today, and we welcome the Government’s Online Safety and Media Regulation (OSMR) Bill 2022 currently going through the Dáil, along with the recent introduction of the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA). These frameworks now need to be properly resourced in order to ensure companies fulfil their responsibilities and act in the best interests, and rights of every child.”
Donnacha’s #KidsTakeOver of the Taoiseach’s office comes a few days after UNICEF’s World Children’s Day on November 20. World Children’s Day is a day ‘for children, by children’, when children from around the world take over, as part of UNICEF’s global #KidsTakeOver initiative, key roles in media, politics, business, sport and entertainment to express their concerns about what global leaders should be focusing on.
According to UNICEF, around the world, children are going online earlier and staying online for longer. This is happening during a period when children are increasingly exposed to embedded and invisible technologies, including algorithms, predictive analytics systems, and even location trackers – that potential violating their rights.
Between 2010 and 2020, the time children spend online almost doubled in many countries. Recent research has found that the majority of children with smartphones report that they use them “almost all the time” to connect, especially on social media. Meanwhile, the numbers of children highlighting online risks is also significant. Globally, 1 in 3 children report experiencing online bullying. And in 2020, 33 per cent of girls and 20 per cent of boys in Europe reported experiencing disturbing content online at least once a month.
Protecting children online and increasing their access to digital learning and other opportunities is also a strong focus of UNICEF’s work all over the world, and UNICEF is helping build the evidence base on children’s digital rights to better understand how the digital transformation of society is influencing children’s lives and wellbeing.