Friday, 9 March 2018

Open Policy Debate - Online Safety : The Student Voice

Thursday morning was an extra early start. Not the bus to Borrisokane Community College for a change. Up and out early to catch the 6.28am train from Templemore to Dublin for the Open Policy Debate on Internet Safety organised by Minister Denis Naughten and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I was invited along to represent the student voice by WEBWISE as I am a member of the Youth Advisory Panel (more on this later). 

Minister Naughten speaking at the Open Policy Debate (source DCCAE)
Minister Naughten and his department organised this open debate as there are a number of Government Departments actively working in the area of online safety such as the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Justice & Equality; the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation; the Department of Health; and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

This was a chance for the Government Departments to discuss the burning issue of online safety with industry and key stakeholders and to explore how we can all work together to make the internet and digital technologies safer and to safeguard against the risks. We are stronger together!

Read the press release about the event here:

My train journey was an opportunity to ensure that I was well-prepared for the debate that lay ahead. Bleary-eyed I went over the notes for the day about the role of the youth panel and my own ideas to ensure that I would reflect the student voice and ensure that we, the future generation were heard in the debate.

IMMA, Kilmainham (source Royal Hospital website)
The salubrious surroundings of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was the setting for the event. This building looks a lot like Les Invalides in Paris and  that is no surprise as it was built for the same purpose of being a military hospital. It is a beautiful  and very historic building and added a sense of importance to the day.

The importance of the theme for the day – online safety was reflected in the team of Government Ministers and TDs that attended, spoke and took part. An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave the opening address to the packed room. He spoke of how the forum was a ‘valuable opportunity to discuss how we can better protect our young people online’.

An Taoiseach's Opening Address (source DCCAE)
The Taoiseach spoke of both the benefits and risks involved in being online. I was personally pleased to hear him acknowledge that ‘a wide range of stakeholders including parents, educators, tech firms and law enforcement have roles to play in making the internet a safer place’.
I firmly believe that we all need to work together to ensure that our own and future generations can benefit from being online and using digital technology while also addressing the growing risks and dangers.

My role on the day as I mentioned at the start of my blog was to represent the voice of young people. I’m lucky to be a member of the Webwise Youth Panel. We are a group of young people from around Ireland who play an active role in ensuring that the student voice is heard in all things digital and in relation to internet safety. We also play a key role in organising Safer Internet Day campaigns in schools annually for Safer Internet Day. After the Open Policy debate myself and some of the youth panellists took part in research into the opportunities and risks of digitalisation for young people with Professor Brian O' Neill in DIT. You can read more about this experience on

Webwise have a wide range of supports for teachers and parents, they are free and available online. There are resources suitable for primary and secondary school students - check out 

Síofra on the Q&A at the debate (image from webwise)
As part of the open policy debate, myself and a number of my fellow youth panelists took part in breakout sessions and table discussions. It was refreshing to bring the student voice to the debate and I was struck by how interested the other stakeholders at my table were in my opinions and my experiences. My fellow youth panelists Síofra Harkin and Cillian Fogarty brought the student voice to the panel Q and A that followed the table discussions. Reflecting on the day, I am delighted with how the student voice was recognised and respected. We are the future generation and we are addressing internet safety not only for ourselves but for others. Grania Long from the ISPCC described online safety as ‘the child protection issue of our time’. A stark reminder of how serious this is.

We also got an opportunity to speak with An Taoiseach, Minister Bruton, Minister Naughten, Minister Zappone, Minister Daly and Minister Stanton, all of whom were interested in hearing our opinions and experiences to inform their own Department’s thinking. Minister Bruton and Minister Naughten spoke with me at length about my role and were both very interested in the student voice in our schools, and how we as students can play our part in being more responsible online.
Webwise Youth Panel members with Minister Daly, Minister Zappone, Minister Naughten, An Taoiseach, Minister Bruton and Minister Stanton (source webwise) 

The debate throughout the day was robust at times, but everyone in attendance was in agreement that this was an issue of huge importance. We all have a role to play - parents, students, schools, industry and Government.
Minister Naughten brought the debate to a close with a clear determination to develop a comprehensive action plan for online safety. One commentator on my Twitter feed described him as a ‘man on a mission’. We need this mission and we need a successful outcome for everyone.  I hope we succeed and I hope that we students can be part of that mission too!

Thank you to Tracy, Jane, the Webwise Team, Minister Naughten and the DCCAE, Professor Brian O' Neill, DIT and everyone who supported us in sharing our student voices!

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