Tuesday 14 August 2018

Children will now pay for our foolish move to raise the digital age of consent

Stock photo
Stock photo
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

So do we all feel better now? Good – because virtually every child protection agency in the country says we’ve just made a big mistake.

Raising the digital age of consent from 13 to 16 will, say child welfare agencies, expose vulnerable young teens to unwanted situations and let tech companies off the hook for protecting them.

But as long as we can all pretend they won’t go online, that’s the main thing, right?

For those who missed it, the Dáil set a new digital age of consent the other day.

In a nutshell, this sets the age at which teens can legally interact with services that collect their personal data.

For kids, that’s mainly social media services such as Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat.

The Dáil set it at 16, against the advice of organisations such as ISPCC, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Barnardo’s and Cybersafe Ireland.

So young teens will still be able to use limited versions of some of these social media and internet services while parental consent can be exercised in other cases.

The trouble is, almost all evidence from experts and those who work or care for kids shows the age limit will be completely ignored.

For example, Cybersafe Ireland, whose main mission is to protect kids, conducted a survey among primary school children between the ages of eight and 13. It found 72pc had a social media account and that parents had helped them create one.

In other words, the idea young teens are sneaking onto social media sites unbeknownst to their parents is wrong.

It’s also weirdly out of touch with reality.

But not uniquely so.

A few months ago, the junior minister with responsibility for mental health, Jim Daly, said we should be required to furnish a national ID card to use Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp.

This was clearly unworkable from the beginning. But it didn’t stop a Government minister proposing it.

The current digital age of 16 is similarly unenforceable. Families will dismiss it without even thinking twice about it.

Kids will simply lie about their age when they sign up for Snapchat, Instagram or Whatsapp. Their parents will just shrug.

Then when a child is targeted by an alcohol advertiser or a gambling company, or befriended by someone who is over 18, the tech companies can simply say: “Not our fault, guv – they told us they were 18.”

All of which now creates a much harder situation for parents trying to keep an eye on what their kids see online and who they’re interacting with.

I don’t believe this is what Labour and Fianna Fáil TDs, who were seduced into voting this way, want.

Some genuinely want to stem commercial data gathering activities aimed at younger teens. Others simply dislike what they see of the internet and want to restrict all phone or online activity from as many young people as possible.

Either way, they’ve just set back online child protection.

Irish Independent

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