The European Union is preparing a new data protection package. It is making headlines because there are plans to raise the age limit for digital consent from 13 to 16 years. This has sometimes been describes as the age limit for joining social media. To be precise, member states could choose their age limit within this range. Younger kids would need parental consent for creating an account in social media and similar networks. We can probably agree that minors’ use of the internet can be problematic. But is an age limit really the right way to go?
It’s easy to think of potential problems when children and teenagers start using social media. The platforms are powerful communication tools, for good and bad. Cyberbullying. Grooming. Inappropriate content. Unwanted marketing. Getting addicted. Stealing time and attention from homework or other hobbies. And perhaps most important. Social media often becomes a sphere of freedom, a world totally insulated from the parents and their silly rules. In social media you can choose your contacts. There’s no function that enables parents to check what the kids are doing, unless they accept their parents as friends. And the parents are often on totally different services. Facebook is quickly becoming the boring place where mom and granny hangs out. Youngsters tend to be on Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Periscope or whatnot instead.
But is restricting their access to social media the right thing to do? What do we achieve by requiring parental consent before they sign up? This would mean that parents, in theory, have a chance to prevent their children from being on social media. And that’s good, right? Well, this is a flawed logic in several ways. First, it’s easy to lie about your age. Social media in generic has very poor authentication mechanisms for people signing up. They are not verifying your true identity, and can’t verify your age either. Kids learn very quickly that signing up just requires some simple math. Subtract 16, or whatever, from the current year when asked for year of birth.
The other problem is that parental consent requirements don’t give parents a real choice. Electronic communication is becoming a cornerstone in our way to interact with other people. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is for our children to learn the rules and skills of this new world. Preventing kids from participating in the community where all their friends are could isolate them, and potentially cause more harm than the dark side of social media.
What we need isn’t age limits and parental consent. It’s better control of the content our children are dealing with and tools for parents to follow what they are doing. Social media is currently designed for adults and everyone have tools to protect their privacy. But the same tools become a problem when children join, as they also prevent parents from keeping an eye on their offspring.
Parental consent becomes significant when the social media platforms start to recognize parent-child relationships. New accounts for children under a specified age could mandatorily be linked to an adult’s account. The adult would have some level of visibility into what the child is doing, but maybe not full visibility. Metadata, like whom the child is communicating with, would be a good start. Remember that children deserve s certain level of privacy too. Parents could of course still neglect their responsibilities, but they would at least have a tool if they want to keep an eye on how their kids are doing online.
And then we still have the problem with the lack of age verification. All this is naturally in vain if the kids can sign up as adults. On top of that, children’s social media preferences are very volatile. They do not stay loyally on one service all the time. Having proper parent-child relationships in one service is not enough, it need to be the norm on all services. So we are still very far from a social media world that really takes parents’ and children’s needs into account.
Just demanding parental consent when kids are signing up does not really do much good. It’s of course nice to see EU take some baby steps towards a safer net for our children. But this is unfortunately an area where baby steps isn’t enough. We need a couple of giant leaps as soon as possible.
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