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21 August 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:05pm

Banning under-16s from social media would punish those who need it most

The European Parliament is considering an amendment that would ban under 16s from some online services unless they have parental consent. 

By Barbara Speed

Today’s young people are yet to be christened with a generational nickname that sticks – Generation Z feels far too ominous – but it’s much easier to define than  “baby boomer” or “millennial”. These are the young people who will have grown up in the digital age, and therefore don’t remember a time before the internet. “Generation online”, perhaps. 

It’s ironic, then, that this could be the first generation to have its digital rights restricted. The European Parliament is deciding this week on amendment to Europe’s Data Protection Regulation which would raise the age of digital consent from 13, the current bar, to 16, unless teens get specific parental consent. This means tech companies like Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and email providers cannot process under-16s data, and therefore cannot accept them as users on their sites and services.

As a Generation-Yer, it’s hard to know what to think about this. Those in their mid-20s saw the internet grow up around them, and tended to have access to a family computer, rather than their own laptop or smartphone. I could endlessly message my friends on MSN messenger, and join Facebook when it started, but I did it on a screen facing out into our family sitting room. My parents still had some oversight over what I was doing and when I was doing it. They were probably as embarassed by my MSN username as I am now. 

In contrast, the idea of having a child who could access whatever they wanted through a smartphone makes me feel a little sick. Streams of stories about sexting, cyberbullying and online grooming seem designed to breed moral panic around the image of a teen with a smartphone.

Yet despite the explosion of devices, parents still manage to restrict what their kids do online. At one extreme, Kate Winslet has bragged that she doesn’t let her kids use social media at all. Somewhere nearer the middle of the spectrum are parents who set up child safety blocks on their broadband plan, and can confiscate devices or restrict access to them when needed. 

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In fact, it’s precisely during the pre-16 teenage years that parents have a chance to oversee what their kids are doing online, and try to encourage safe practices. Sheltering under-16s from social media altogether seems pointless, as once kids hit 16 they’ll join anyway – and won’t have any experience or parental guidance to draw on.

This is the view of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), which has written a letter to the European Paliament “expressing concern” about the proposed amendment. It argues that moving the age up to 16 would “deprive young people of educational and social opportunities” without actually providing more protection online, and would “stop the valuable slow of guidance” from teachers about how to use online tools. It also points out that this is a last minute, “major shift” in the policy for which there has apparently been no public consultation.  

There’s a parallel here with drinking age – and, in fact, all policies which favour prohibition of a perceived societal vice rather than controlled access to it. Study after study has implied that the ability to drink as a teenager in restaurants and family homes encourages a healthier attitude to alcohol than a total ban until age 18 or 21. It’s likely that controlled access to social media is helpful in the same way, and prevents it from becoming a forbidden or taboo subject. 

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From the point of view of the tech companies, the ban isn’t a good thing either – and not just because it would vastly reduce their userbases. Enforcement would be near-impossible, and younger teens would simply lie about their age online as a matter of course. This would make it harder for tech companies to introduce controls and safety measures, or identify younger teens that could be vulnerable online. Meanwhile, social media use would be seen as a taboo, and young people whose parents haven’t given consent might feel they can’t go to them parents if something goes wrong.

The amendment also assumes a traditional family unit, where parents can and should have total power over which online services their kids use. Yet as FOSI points out in its letter, the internet often acts a “lifeline” for young people living in troubled circumstances or whose identity or sexual orientation isn’t accepted at home. The new law would make an exception for direct counselling services, but ignores the fact that most young people want (or even need) a support network they can access online.  

Andrew Solomon’s cornerstone book on the relationships between parents and children, Far from the Tree, explores a modern world where “horizontal identities” – those ways we differ from our parents – seem to be taking over from our “vertical”, or inherited, identities. For many, the internet is a huge part of this: it allows us to develop a self based on materials other than those in our direct line of sight. A top-down effort to slow or stop this process in young people is misguided, and when we acknowledge that vulnerable young people are those most likely to lose out, it starts to look a little sinister.

Update 18/12:

Following discussions, European authorities have dropped the amendment, ruling that individual states should set their own digital age of consent. UK government officials have said they won’t be raising the age from 13.