The digital age of consent in Ireland is set to be 16 after the government’s proposal for 13 was reflected in the Dail.
The government defeat means that social media giants such as Facebook and Snapchat may have to take measures to acquire parental consent for users it knows are between 13 and 16 years of age.
The move has been welcomed by Labour TD Sean Sherlock, whose vote on the issue helped to reverse what looked like becoming a 13-year-old age limit, following countries such as the UK.
However, the result was greeted with display by children's rights campaigners and government TDs, who say children will now be more vulnerable online with tech companies having less legal responsibility to protect them.
“This will make it harder to protect kids from the likes of alcohol and gambling ads because we won’t know their actual ages,” said Ian Power, executive director of Spunout.ie, a youth information website.
“This is a massive let off for the big tech companies. Current legislation only puts the onus on them once they know an account is used by someone under 13. Kids will continue to use services any way. We’re just creating an unregulated Wild West situation, kids are going to be left more vulnerable.”
A spokesperson for Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, was unavailable to answer questions on the matter.
The company may now change the service of those users who are registered as being under 18.
WhatsApp recently changed its age of consent to 16 across the EU ahead of the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Snapchat, the online service most used by children aged between 13 and 16, has indicated that it will continue to allow those under 16 to use its platform but will restrict certain information-gathering activities such as location data.
A spokesperson for Twitter said that the company had no comment to make on the issue at present.
EU countries have taken a differing approach to the digital age of consent, with the largest number opting for 13. However, 10 countries have chosen 16 as the digital age of consent, including Germany and France.
One of the TDs who voted for the age of consent to be set at 16 said that it was a “balancing act” and that Ireland needed to err on the higher end of the age scale.
“We felt that 13 was too young,” said Sean Sherlock, Labour TD for Cork East.
“It came down to a contest between access to content versus the issue of profiling by social media companies or internet companies of people under 16. We looked at the Dutch position as one of the most liberal countries in Europe and they decided to go for 16 on the basis of parental control and we decided that was the most apposite position.”
Mr Sherlock said that the GDPR was “imperfect” and that there are still “major issues” around age verification to enforce the legislation.
“That’s the big elephant in the room,” he said. “But we came to the conclusion that was no impediment to people of a certain age being able to access certain fora.”
However, other child protection campaigners said that the new age limit leaves certain groups of children in a more vulnerable position than before.
“The group of children most concerned about are LGBTI children,” said Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.
“They’re often online and using platforms when their parents don’t know. These could be helping them and giving them moral support. We know that many kids realize they’re gay at between 10 and 12 but often don’t come out to family and friends until they’re 16.”
Other campaigners say that parents already help children onto social media services before they’re 13 and that the new age limit of 16 will now let advertising companies target them more aggressively under their assumed over 16 age category.
“We conducted a survey of thousands of primary school children between the ages of 8 and 13,” said Alex Cooney, chief executive of Cybersafe Ireland.
“The data showed that 72pc were already on social media and that parents had helped them to join. So the idea that this makes kids less prone to being profiled isn’t what we think is going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the leading campaigner for Ireland to adopt a digital age of consent of 16 has said she is 'absolutely delighted' with a Dáil vote tonight that has backed her position.
Dr Aiken, the director of the CyberPsychology Research Network told Independent.ie that she is glad that now Irish children "will be offered the same protection as German kids, French kids and Dutch kids".
"They have some of the best practice in the world," she added. "I am delighted."
Dr Aiken said she think the Government handled the entire issue poorly.
"The consultation was flawed and we don't think the government took this decision to the people or explained it.
"The decision of the government that 13 was acceptable was inappropriate.
Dr Aiken cited that over the two years of this debate: "a lot has changed in cyberspace. We have seen umpteen horrendous cases involving children."
"The tech sector have moved on. Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp are all moving towards 16 as the digital age of consent. Major markets are moving that way and the Government were blindsided and left out on the limb, a 13 year old one."