Have We Lost Sight of the Bigger Picture on Child Protection?

By Adrian Weckler
Irish Independent
May 3, 2015

But all I have of it is a memory. Because a few minutes before she sang, the presiding priest told families that photographing the event would be illegal.

"According to the rules of child protection law, we have to ask you not to take pictures," he said.

This is not an isolated incident. A spokesman for the Dublin archdiocese later said that this is now the advice given out to parishes: photos of kids' events in churches are banned as a matter of "best practice".

To thousands of parents in the middle of Communion and Confirmation season, it won't feel like best practice. It will feel more like the latest in a series of depressing overreactions.

All over Ireland, there is a growing tension at children's events. School plays and junior sports events are becoming no-go areas for cameras. An underage sports contest I recently attended required by-standing parents to fill out consent forms, ostensibly to give the organisers legal cover for any photos taken. Kids' Christmas musicals now routinely forbid parents in the audience to take photos "for child safety reasons".

(Coincidentally, there is sometimes a commercial photographer present to sell photos and DVDs to parents afterwards.)


The message is increasingly grim: if you're taking photos of events that include children, society must now take precautions against the possibility of you being a monster.

It doesn't help that these organisations are often legally wrong. For example, there is no law banning photos of kids in churches. Irish data protection legislation covers some aspects of identifying individuals, but nothing approaching a blanket ban of photos of children.

But institutions have become paranoid about how they are seen to deal with children. And bans of this nature are trickling down through the system in bizarre ways.

Forgetting to fill in one of the newly established legal consent forms in schools can mean that your child is yanked from set-piece classroom photos. Alternatively, a child's face can be blurred or blanked in a class photo for similar reasons. This is a grotesque outcome, which draws attention to the absent child in a very unpleasant way.

"We can't be too careful in today's environment," is how one teacher described it to me. "It's just better to be safe than sorry."

Have we gone too far in our zeal to create the impression of child protection? Does banning parental photos in a Confirmation ceremony genuinely do anything to protect children from harm?

And how far could this extend? County finals of underage sports events declaring on the loudspeaker system that photos are now banned? Charity events with children present? The annual BT Young Scientists convention?

No one doubts that organisations such as the church or schools are generally trying to do the right thing.

But unless common sense returns to a topic too often governed by hysteria and institutional guilt, we're going to miss out on preserving more and more of the precious milestones in our kids' lives. Some key organisations, thankfully, are showing a little intelligence on the issue.

"A common sense approach is required when deciding on what may or may not be appropriate… to allow us to photograph the enjoyment gained by participating in our games," says the GAA's 'Code Of Best Practice In Youth Sport'.

And in case any teachers out there are wondering, this is what the Irish National Teachers Association says about false claims of 'data protection' as a basis for banning photos at school events:

"Parents are not required to comply with the Data Protection Act when taking photographs of their children, for their own private use, at an organised event," says its official guidance.

"As far as the Data Protection Act is concerned, INTO's advice is that schools need not seek permission for parents to video or photograph school events. As long as the parents have been invited to the event and the subsequent pictures are intended for family or private use, there is no breach of the Act."

Unfortunately, such reasoned, legally sound analysis only has so much sway in an area so beset by hysteria over the last decade. Fear is easily (and sometimes calculatedly) whipped up when the safety of our children is involved.

Some may recall that when 3G phones were first introduced over 10 years ago, they were tagged by tabloids as "paedophile tools". It culminated in then-Minister for Communications Noel Dempsey promising to introduce a solemn State 'register' for anyone buying one. (This never actually became a reality.)


Similarly, when 'selfies' hit the world's lexicon in 2013, senior Irish political commentators warned that the gates of "self-generated child abuse material" would open wide.

Is there a threat from the inappropriate sharing of child images? Absolutely. Every month we read about serious abuse of children, the most awful examples of which can be shared online.

And it's not just the 'worst case' abuse photos, either. Sly photos are taken and shared as 'pranks', but are sometimes used to embarrass or shame peers. Even when this is not the case, many people are legitimately sensitive about their photo being used publicly (which is why we have data protection laws).

So it is true that there is a lot of bad behaviour, generally, wrapped up in our adoption of instant messaging and photo-sharing.

But does piously banning photos at a sports match, a toddlers' musical or a 13-year-old's church Confirmation address any of the underlying issues facing these complex problems? Does it create any more safety against the ultimate nightmare of a child falling into harm's way? It seems very unlikely.

We are surely misstepping if we continue to allow loving communal events to be turned into something more fearsome.

We will eventually regret altering our kids' perception of adults from being agents of kindness to potential predators.

If things don't change soon, we, the 99.99pc of parents and children who want to celebrate the world, will pay a heavy toll for the predatory crimes of the 0.01pc.

Confirmations only happen once. We shouldn't be afraid to make photo memories of them.








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