Alex Cooney: Empowering families to stay safe online

With no government regulation of online service providers and little campaigning on the dangers of online, CyberSafeIreland co-founder and CEO Alex Cooney (pictured) emphasises to ThinkBusiness the vital need to empower children and educate parents on navigating the internet safely.

Why did you set up CyberSafeIreland?

It was set up four years ago by three co-founders. Two of the co-founders worked in cybercrime investigation and online child exploitation in the UK and had moved back to Ireland.

My background was in the not-for-profit sector. One of the co-founders, Cliona Curley was volunteering in primary schools doing online safety education. It struck her that the material being used was dated.

“We set up with the passion and the mission and the expertise but we hadn’t worked out the business plan. We had a vague notion of  but we hadn’t tested it. Consequently, it’s always been a weakness in our model”

She was surprised at how engaged children already were online and how little parents and teachers seemed to know. She felt there was too big a gap. She approached the organisation’s other co-founder, Maggie Brennan and myself and that’s how CyberSafeIreland was born.

What are the aims of the organisation?

The mission is to empower children, parents and teachers to navigate the online world in a stronger, smarter and safer way. Stronger is all about building resilience. Smarter is about making smart choices online. Safe is about having a safer user and online experience.

CyberSafeIreland is pro-technology but we recognise that children are very young when they start their online journey. They need guidance and support. There are lots of opportunities online and we want children to embrace those. We want parents to make informed choices about their children’s online use and access but we also need to be mindful of the risks that children face online.

“Every child needs digital literacy skills, to have online safety information. Every parent needs to know how to parent on it. It is that core but we haven’t quite caught up, nationally”

What are the most common risks for children online? 

Children tend to share too much personal information. They need to think about their digital footprint; about the photos they put up, the information in them – are they telling people their address, name, age., to think about who they are sharing it with and how much control they have over that data. What children think is okay to share at age 9 or 10 might be different when they’re older. Children love technology, they want that access but going online is still seen as a toy or game. The ramifications of what they’re sharing is not well understood. They value popularity over privacy.

Inappropriate content is available at the click of a button if you don’t have parental controls set on devices children are using. The content could be horror, sexual or violent. We surveyed 4,000 kids on their online behaviour, 47 percent of the boys were playing over 18s games. Parents need to check what their child is asking to download.

Then there’s cyber bullying, which is often the reason we’re called into schools in the first place. It impacts on children’s health and well-being, self-esteem and sleep. Teachers often talk about children being tired because they’ve been up late on their devices. The scary end of the spectrum is online grooming and extortion. Traditionally, with grooming there would have been one predator and one victim. Now one predator could have potentially hundreds of victims. These predators use social media channels to access children. Grooming is also accelerated online. Where in real life it might have taken months to groom a child, online it can be done in the course of 10 sentences. 

“I’m very proud of the data that we’ve gathered. I feel like we’ve made online safety an issue in the media”

How do you make children aware of the ramifications of their online activities?

We show them how their data could be used in a way they may not want it to be. Often it’s just simply that they haven’t thought about what was in the video, or whether they put their social media accounts on private. We help them understand the bigger online world, who’s out there, who could access their information. From a corporate point of view, we urge them to think about people making money from their information. These are conversations people don’t think they need to have with children, but they do.

How does CyberSafeIreland counter online dangers to children?

Woman speaking to parents in a classroom.

A trainer doing a teacher session in a school. Image: CyberSafe Ireland

We have trainers who go into classrooms to talk directly to kids, teachers and parents. We have cyber ninjas – volunteer cyber security specialists doing research on our behalf. We need to stay one step ahead of online trends. It’s knowing what the kids love and engaging with them on it and really trying to get good messages across – talking to them about who they are communicating with, what they are sharing online, how to protect their data, who they can trust and what they should question.

At a macro level, we’re trying to reach a wider audience through media and social media. We publish our data once a year in an annual report. We use it as an opportunity to highlight what kids are doing online to raise awareness of this important issue.

What is the next step for the organisation?

We plan to launch a National Parents Awareness Campaign in 2020. When you think of the investment into road safety campaigning and the difference it has made. But it’s not just public awareness, it’s also regulation. There’s no regulation of online service providers. We need stronger regulation to hold providers to account – to ensure that they design apps and games ethically, for example making them private by default, rather than public. We believe it should be standard that apps and games are designed for a safer user experience, not just for profit, which is too often the case.

What were some of the challenges of setting up CyberSafeIreland and how did you overcome them? 

We were probably a bit naïve going into it. I worked for not-for-profits my whole career but I hadn’t ever set something up. The reality for charities is that most of them have to look at social enterprise models to have some sort of charging structure so as not to be 100pc reliant on fundraising, because that’s so unsustainable.

That was a big challenge. We set up with the passion and the mission and the expertise but we hadn’t worked out the business plan. We had a vague notion of it but we hadn’t tested it and consequently, it’s always been a weakness in our model. We are quite reliant on the fundraising side. We are increasingly looking at ways to be less dependent but it is not easy; we don’t get any government funding or recognition for what we’re doing because it’s not considered a frontline issue.

Every child needs digital literacy skills, to have online safety information. Every parent needs to know how to parent on it. It is that core but we haven’t quite caught up, nationally. We have an action plan. It’s not very robust as a document. There is no accountability in it. With the next election coming up, there is a real need to ensure that we get this into the next programme for government because otherwise it’ll be another five years. That would mean generations of kids who are not consistently getting really good support and education on this.

What have some of the highlights been?

I’m very proud of the data that we’ve gathered. I feel like we’ve made online safety an issue in the media. We’ve grown, with huge support from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and the Ireland Funds. But we’ve a long way to go. We have lots of things we need to achieve in 2020, so there’s no sitting on our laurels.

How do you see the organisation developing in the future?

We have spoken directly to almost 20,000 children since we launched the Education Programme in 2016, that’s a big number but it’s still barely 10pc of the children in the 8-13 age range that we focus on. We need to be looking at national strategies that will impact more broadly, whether it’s public awareness or regulation or ensuring that education is in every school. Our focus moving forward is to maintain visiting schools but also have a bigger impact on a bigger scale.

What advice would you give on setting up a social enterprise?

Get the business plan right. The mission and the passion are key but you’ll only be able to deliver on that mission if you have a decent business plan. Take all the advice you can get. We had lots of people offer us great support at the beginning – say yes because there will be a time when you might be asked the same and you can give back then.

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 17 January 2020