"The Internet is not fit for children as it stands. There is no shallow end of the swimming pool," Dr Mary Aiken, a UCD academic and an advisor Europol’s European Crime Centre, declared on RTÉ's Prime Time last night.


Indeed, between cyber-bullying and the presence of predators online, many have grown concerned over Ireland's digital age of consent, 13 years of age. This is the lower end of the 13 to 16 range established by European law.


The digital age of consent is the age at which data controllers are legally able to begin holding data on an individual.


Dr Aiken questioned why 13 was even chosen on the programme last night, saying, “We had a huge debate about the age of consent for physical health issues, so what age could a child go to the doctor to see them on their own, and it was deemed that a child younger than the age of 16 was incapable of giving informed consent in terms of their physical health.”


“Now we have a whole body of evidence pointing to negative aspects in terms of mental health and children engaging in social media.



"So how could a child possibly give informed consent at 13 regarding their mental health if they cannot give it regarding their physical health? I think it’s eminently challengeable."


She described a recent worrying trend online as well: “In my work with Europol we issued a warning six months ago saying that we found that children as young as seven were being targeted by predators online,"


"What’s significant is you can have a predator who is a paedophile and who has a sexually deviant interest in the child, but there’s a whole new cohort now who have an economic interest in exploiting the child, what’s called ‘sextortion’ or ‘online coercion’."


The cyber safety expert has good news for parents, though. “It’s not too late, [the digital age of consent] doesn’t come into effect until May. You still have a chance to lobby," she assured viewers.



When asked what mums and dads can do to keep their kids safe on the Internet, Dr Aiken responded, "I don’t think we should start with parents. I think that statutory authorities have to come up with protocols, academics can inform that process.


"So if we think about stages of development, we had Piaget stages of real-world development – your child should walk at one, they should construct sentences at 18 months… and we don’t have the equivalent for stages of cyber cognitive development, for example, what’s the best age to give a child a smartphone.”


She says that, scientifically, there needs to be more evidence for why 13 was chosen as the digital age of consent.


"This is a legal construct that you have to have a specific age," Dr Aiken stated, "But in psychology, children develop in age bands, so, say, between 11 and 14. And if that’s the case then effectively what you need to do is legislate at the upper age of the age band."



Of course, even if this age of consent is raised, people worry about kids finding a way to use technology despite regulations put in place. However, Dr Aiken observed that this is the case in all areas of parenting, including trying to curb underage drinking.


"As a society, we put structures in place to help parent children," she noted.


“If we had those protocols and they were backed by authorities, then at least parents would know how to make decisions.”


Do you plan on lobbying the government about the digital age of consent, mums? Do you agree with Dr Aiken's concerns?