MLAs debate dangers the internet poses to children

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The Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers agreed to take the lead on a strategy to help children enjoy the internet safely, on 5 February 2013.

A cross-party motion asked the Assembly to recognise the dangers the internet could pose to children and to build on the work which was already ongoing in this area at both Westminster and Stormont.

Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend proposed the motion, which she said had been tabled to coincide with UK Safer Internet Day.

The Mid-Ulster MLA said that 12-15 year olds spent more than 17 hours per week online.

She said there was an urgent need for a co-ordinated approach to address cyber bullying on social media sites and online sexual grooming.

Culture committee chairwoman, Michelle McIlveen of the DUP, said there needed to more education on the responsible use of technology and online conduct.

She said there was a "recognised need" for a cross-departmental internet safety strategy to help young people, parents and teachers.

Sinn Fein's Megan Fearon said cyber-bullying could have serious effects on the mental health of a child.

She referred to two County Donegal sisters. Fifteen-year-old Shannon Gallagher was found dead in December 2012, less than two months after her 13-year-old sister Erin died.

Erin took her own life after allegedly being bullied online.

Ms Fearon's party colleague, Health Committee chairwoman Sue Ramsey, also highlighted the dangers of purchasing "legal and lethal drugs" online.

Sean Rogers of the SDLP said the internet was a useful tool but it had "a darker side" with its access to pornographic imagery and suicide packs.

Alliance Strangford MLA Kieran McCarthy said he wanted people to take note of Safer Internet Day's slogan of "Connect With Respect".

He said he hoped a strategy would be as robust as possible to protect young people from online dangers.

Responding to the debate, Junior Minister Jennifer McCann said work was already ongoing to improve internet safety for children and the Department of Education had issued guidance to schools.

She said the debate had been useful in identifying gaps and how they could be addressed.

"I hope this will be the start of us coming together to look at safety issues for our children," she said.

The motion passed with unanimous support.

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