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The EU, social media and age restrictions: a way forward

By Vicki Shotbolt, CEO, Parent Zone

 

The law about age restrictions can easily appear bizarre and confusing.

Restrictions exist on any number of products from alcohol to solvents. It’s illegal for anyone to tattoo a person under the age of 18 but there are no restrictions on body piercing. You have no right to choose your own GP if you are under the age of 16 but you can consent to confidential medical advice provided the medical professional believes you understand what is involved. If they don’t, they can refuse to keep the consultation confidential.

The age at which young people are deemed to be mature enough to make their own decisions is by no means straight forward.

The internet makes things even more difficult. Most services, including the big guys like Facebook, set an age restriction of 13 because of legislation in the US that requires companies to obtain parental consent if they want to capture children’s data. In the UK we have no such law, but young people are expected to follow the terms of service set by companies. Many don’t. Some research suggests that around half of children between the ages of 9 and 12 have a Facebook account.

The EU has just entered this complex sphere and decided to set an EU-wide standard of 16 for online services, with an option for member states to set 13, 14 or 15 as the appropriate age if countries choose to pass their own legislation. If they don’t, 16 will be the minimum.

The furore that followed this announcement has been interesting. Children’s charities and industry membership organisations like the Family Online Safety Institute have rushed to point out that increasing the age will either result in more children lying about their age, or more children being banned from services.

Organisations that have embraced the idea of giving parents absolute control over their children’s internet use through the increasing use of filters and tools have been appalled by the idea that parents will be required to consent on behalf of their children. Children being the operative word here.

It’s a real conundrum. Developing effective methods for obtaining parental consent is difficult, although not impossible as any parent with experience of Club Penguin will know. One option is that services simply raise their minimum age to 16 but is that likely? Will Facebook really take active steps to remove any account from a young person under that age?

We hope that something different will happen. If the EU passes its proposed legislation we hope that it will encourage companies to take parents seriously. Perhaps, instead of losing millions of younger users, they will explore how parents can be asked to give consent. There are two reasons for this to be a better way forward.

First, it will mean that more parents will be actively involved in supporting children through their choice of social media. Obviously some children will cheat the system – that’s what children do – but many more parents will be brought into the circle. They will have rights to ask companies about their children’s accounts and hopefully, they will be given an opportunity to be part of the process.

Second, it will mean that children will be differentiated from adults at a more appropriate age. The wholesale capturing of children’s data without parental involvement will be subject to more rigorous control.

In a space as difficult to navigate wisely as the internet, it cannot be right that parents are written out of the equation completely.

Perhaps this new legislation will lead to the development of services that are more suitable for under 16s. Perhaps it will mean that when a child experiences harm online their parents will be better able to step in and deal with it just as they do in other circumstances. Maybe it will allow parents to help younger children avoid the pitfalls of accessing spaces that are simply not designed for children. Better still, it might mean that services become better at supporting children because they will have to either acknowledge that children are there, or do more to stop them being there.

Who knows, children might even get the guiding hand they need before being thrown into the online world which few adults think is entirely safe for 13-year-olds. Could this be the turning point where the scales balance up a bit and parents are given rights as well as responsibilities?

There’s a thought.

 

Image: StartBloggingOnline.com, CC BY 2.0