As a parent, I can readily understand why, at first glance, it looks as if the digital age of consent should be 16. The term “age of consent” itself evokes a strong reaction. Our initial response is rightly to be focused on child protection, and instinctively 13 feels young. That is why it is important to understand just what the digital age of consent is and why the Government believes that 13 is the appropriate one.
A lot of different issues have been conflated during the discussion on the digital age of consent inside and outside the Oireachtas and it is important to set the record straight.
In the first instance, it is important to be clear that the digital age of consent is a separate issue from ensuring that teenagers are as well equipped as they can be to navigate the online world, which has many advantages as well as some dangers.
Child welfare experts tell us that it is important that children, many of whom are probably more tech-savvy than their parents, feel they can be honest online
We also need to remember that this provision is not about having a smartphone or about accessing unsuitable material.
Put simply, this issue is about children’s use of services and their rights to use such services.
In making our decision to propose a digital age of consent of 13, the Government consulted widely with appropriate experts. The Government’s Data Forum – which brings together legal and data protection experts, business representatives from SMEs and multinationals, as well as sociologists, psychologists and education specialists – carried out public consultation processes. And a majority of respondents, including, notably, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office and the Internet Safety Advisory Committee, recommended a digital age of consent of 13 years.
In addition, the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, the ISPCC and the Children’s Rights Alliance, which represents more than 100 organisations involved in child welfare, also support setting the age at 13.
One fundamental reason experts consider 13 to be the better choice, relates to enforceability.
Child welfare experts tell us that it is important that children, many of whom are probably more tech-savvy than their parents, feel they can be honest online. An unintended consequence of a digital age of consent of 16 is that children may pretend to be older than they are to access apps that their friends are using. If they are exposed to an unsafe situation, they may not feel comfortable telling a parent or teacher. We want children to be honest and to be aware of how to navigate the online world in a safe way.
Removing an incentive for children of 13, 14 and 15 to be untruthful about their age online actually affords them greater protection, as companies that wish to interact with them will have to have appropriate child protection procedures in place. They will not be in a position to argue that their spaces are for adults only.
I hope that anyone with concerns consults the Oireachtas website to see the debate that has taken place – and continues to take place – on this issue
It is true that some countries opted for a digital age of consent of 16, but many others have decided on 13, thus taking the same view as us. As a government, we are maintaining that view, basing it, as I have said, on the expert advice of child welfare experts. However, I do take the concerns expressed seriously and that is why I proposed an amendment to the Data Protection Bill to provide for review of the digital age of consent, a review which must start within three years of the Bill coming into force, and which must finish within one year.
So please be assured, we are paying attention. We are being vigilant and we are prepared to be responsive. But having paid attention, been vigilant and been responsive, thus far we firmly believe the best age at which to set the digital age of consent is 13.
I hope that anyone with concerns consults the Oireachtas website to see the debate that has taken place – and continues to take place – on this issue and also visits the websites of child welfare organisations such as the ISPCC or the Children’s Rights Alliance.
After all, as we all know, the internet is part of modern life and the Government wants children to be able to use it in a safe way. Indeed, together with the EU, we fund a resource called webwise.ie which provides information advice and free education resources addressing a range of internet safety issues and concerns. This is an important resource for both teachers and parents and I urge all parents to log onto webwise.ie.
An Action Plan on Online Safety is also being developed by Government and involves my department and a host of others. We are all currently playing an important role in online safety because we know just how important it is.
Charlie Flanagan, Minister for Justice and Equality. The Data Protection Bill is currently before the Oireachtas. It transposes the General Data Protection Regulation and accompanying Directive which comes into force across the EU on May 25th.