Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent

I was delighted to help put this letter together, calling on the Government to stick with 13 as the ‘Digital Age of Consent’. Great to get support from so many eminent experts and leaders in this field, many thanks to all who put their name below.

Published here on Medium:  Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent and reproduced in full here:

In relation to the Data Protection Bill, we note that the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, having studied this issue carefully, recommended setting the digital age of consent at 13. It is therefore of great disappointment to us that parties to that report have now tabled amendments contrary to that recommendation. As such, we call on the Minister and the Government to remain steadfast in their commitment to 13.

With regard to the current situation, Ireland already has a de facto digital age of consent set at 13. As research such as the EU Kids Online Project has shown, we already have many issues with under 13s using online services in spite of this restriction. Setting the digital age of consent at 16 will not solve these issues, in fact, it will only multiply them.

It is worth stressing that the ‘digital age of consent’ is a data protection issue, not a child safety one. Protecting children from targeted advertising is quite different from protecting them from cyberbullying or online predation. Using data protection law to achieve an online safety effect is, in our view, extremely misguided.

In that light, far too much energy has been wasted on this debate when we could have been talking about how to actually protect and educate children about their digital rights. Our children need a proper digital education and we are failing to deliver this.

What this debate has painfully highlighted is how disconnected many parents feel with regard to their children’s online activity. Rather than delivering a knee-jerk response to those fears, the Government should commit to a properly resourced campaign of parental digital education.

Setting the age of consent at 13 would ensure that social media companies continue their efforts to try to make their online spaces safe and appropriate for under 18’s. If the digital age of consent is set to 16, online platforms would be able to argue that their spaces are for adults only, and reduce protections accordingly. Put simply, the higher age gives parents an illusion of control while at the same time letting industry off the hook.

Finally, given how few viable technical solutions to age verification have been proposed during this debate, setting the digital age of consent to 16 will inevitably lead to more young people simply lying about their ages. Whether with or without their parents’ help, this probably the worst first lesson in digital education a child should ever receive. More to the point, this is unlikely to encourage a child to tell their parents if something bad happens to them when online.

As such, we, therefore, urge the Government and the Oireachtas to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in setting the digital age of consent at 13.

Yours, etc.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon, Director, Institute of Cyber Security

Ronan Lupton BL, Internet Content Governance Advisory Group

Ian Power, Executive Director,

Harry McCann, Founder, Digital Youth Council

Prof Brian O’Neill, Director of Research, Enterprise and Innovation, Dublin Institute of Technology

Mark Smyth, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Alex Cooney, CEO, CyberSafeIreland

Tanya Ward, CEO, Children’s Rights Alliance

Grainia Long, CEO, ISPCC Childline

Prof Joe Carthy, College Principal and Dean of Science, University College Dublin

Dr James O’Higgins Norman, Director, National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, Dublin City University

Dr Vincent Mc Darby, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Ian O’Grady, Senior Counselling Psychologist, President-Elect Psychological Society of Ireland.



Psychology and social media: Watch out for these apps!

Here’s the video of my presentation at the Psychological Society of Ireland’s Annual Conference in Limerick, Ireland, on November 11th, 2017. The full title of the talk is ’10 years of psychology and social media: Watch out for these apps, for they come to take your jobs’.

The abstract is below, and a fully referenced paper will follow. Overall, the presentation is about the complex relationship between the study of psychology and social media.

As I have said before, the relationship between human psychology and our self-technologies, like social media, is a complex one, which deserves careful study. I feel that it is of great importance that research on psychological topics – which necessarily means social media – should be carried out with a strong focus on participant dignity and respect. Comments/queries welcome!




At the 2010 PSI Conference, I presented on what was an increasingly popular but then largely trivial pastime: Facebook. Today, I return with a more sobering message. In these uncertain times, social media is bound up with multiple crises of a psychological nature, be it cyberbullying, fake news, or radicalisation. Reviewing a decade of social media studies, and interpreting them in the light of Foucault, Danziger, Rose and other philosophers of the human sciences, I have three findings. Firstly, social media has profoundly changed the way we relate to ourselves and to each other: norms are shifting in developmental, interpersonal, clinical and many other psychological contexts. Secondly, social media studies are rapidly evolving and new methodologies threaten to render several areas of psychological research obsolete. Big data analysis of social media usage is moving into sensitive topics – including personality analysis and prediction of suicidal ideation. Finally, while we may struggle to keep pace with complex technological changes, I propose a number of clear strategies for navigating these volatile times. In a word, ethics.

#TEDxFD – The death of the mind – and what comes next?


I am extremely excited and incredibly honoured to be speaking at TEDxFulbright tomorrow in the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Many thanks to Lorcan, Emma, Chris and everyone else at the Fulbright Commission for making it happen, and also our fantastic speaking coach Barbara.

In my talk I will be speaking on a paper I published a number of years back, and which I still think about very often. The paper, titled ‘The origins of the psychological ‘interior’—Evidence from Imperial Roman literary practices and related issues‘, is a lot more interesting than it actually sounds!

As I will mention tomorrow, it started with sort of eureka moment I had while in the library in UCD. I was reading the Discourses of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher from the first century AD.  My doctoral thesis was on the subject of attention, and this is the section I was interested in:

When you relax your attention [prosoché] for a little while, do not imagine that whenever you choose you will recover, but bear this in mind, that because of the mistake which you have made to-day, your condition must be necessarily worse as regards everything else… why do you not maintain your attention [prosoché] continuously? (IV, 12, ll. 1-3; trans. 1966)

What struck me about this section is that while I understood what Epictetus was talking about, at the same time, it was completely alien. There is no way I could hold my attention like that! His attention was quite different to mine! But at the same time, the difference was very profound. I realised that Epictetus’ writing about psychological concepts was missing something – something pretty big.

In modern times it is quite normal to talk about the mind as ‘looking within yourself’ or ‘finding inner peace’ or ‘getting inside your head’. And this idea of an inward mind is implicit in things like ‘repressing memories’ and ‘expressing emotion’ – we have an inner space inside us and we call this our mind.

But this type of language does not happen in ancient literature, and when it does occur, it is quite mystical. For example, Plutarch’s Moralia, from the same era, also states:

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. (I.48C; trans. 1960).

And Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, from a little later, is a classic:

Men look for retreats for themselves, the country, the sea-shore, the hills; and you yourself, too, are peculiarly accustomed to feel the same want. Yet all this is very unlike a philosopher, when you may at any hour you please retreat into yourself. For nowhere does a man retreat into more quiet or privacy than into his own mind… (IV.3; trans. 1944)

Why did the ancient philosophers not think like we did? I later discovered that this ‘inwardness’ which we are now very familiar with, begins at a certain point in time, a few centuries after Epictetus, Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius. Augustine wrote this passage in the late 4th century.

People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested. They experience no surprise that when I was speaking of all these things, I was not seeing them with my eyes… Yet when I was seeing them, I was not absorbing them in the act of seeing with my eye… They are pushed into the background in some interior place—which is not a place. (Confessions, X, 8.15–9.16; trans. 1991).

Augustine goes on to describe a whole theology of inwardness and writes about the mind in a way that we recognise – an interior place. And for some reason, pretty much everyone since him has done so too. Right from 386 CE up to the modern era, the idea of the mind as being an ‘inner place’ stayed relatively constant

Why was there such a dramatic shift from the ancient philosophers to Augustine? And what’s this got to do with the death of the mind? Not to mention what comes next?! I guess to find that out you’ll have to either read the paper, come to the talk or wait for the video to come online!

But suffice it to say that there was a signficant change in the information technology being used at the time. And our psychology stayed relatively similar, because our information technology didn’t change – until recently.

The implications of the information technology revolution for humanity – and all its pressing problems, from climate change, to mass migration, to cybercrime – are more profound than you could possibly imagine.