The digital age of consent should be 13

Curtailing the rights of young people online will not make the internet safer

A study by the Pew Research Centre found young people were significantly more likely to report positive experiences online than negative ones. Photograph: Istock

A study by the Pew Research Centre found young people were significantly more likely to report positive experiences online than negative ones. Photograph: Istock

 

A recent article in these pages has questioned the advice of the special rapporteur for child protection that the so-called “digital age of consent” should be set at 13. In arguing for a higher age barrier, the authors have challenged those of us who support greater rights for 13-15 year-olds to “show [them] the evidence”. Fortunately, there is plenty of it.

The digital age of consent refers to the age at which young people may sign up for online services such as social media without needing the explicit approval of their parent or guardian. Under the incoming EU General Data Protection Regulation, member states are free to set their national age at between 13 and 16. Though the default age is 16, it is worth noting that 13 has long been the de facto age in Ireland and is already official policy in the US.

There seems to be an assumption from certain quarters that the decision to recommend the age of 13 was reached in some sort of vacuum. On the contrary, there is a wealth of expert opinion and common sense in favour of its retention. The Children’s Rights Alliance, which represents more than 100 organisations involved in children’s welfare, is strongly in favour of keeping it at “the lowest age possible”, as is the Family Online Safety Institute. Why?

In answering this question, the first place to which we must turn is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Persons under 18 have clearly-articulated rights that must be respected. In particular, Articles 12 and 13 guarantee rights to freedom of opinion and expression; Article 15 establishes the right to freedom of association; Article 17 sets out the right of access to appropriate information; and Article 24 concerns rights of access to health services. Can it really be argued, in our modern society, that any of these rights would not be imperilled by tighter restrictions on internet access? Consider in particular the role of web services in offering mental health information in the absence of affordable and accessible services in much of the country.

Parental responsibilities

There are those who will point to the vital role of parents and guardians in tempering these rights with concern for their child’s security. It is true that parents and guardians have a significant role to play: the ideal will always be that children’s rights and parental responsibilities go hand-in-hand. Yet it is no great difficulty to imagine a scenario in which a young person’s rights are directly harmed by an abusive or neglectful parent. In such cases, the ability to access online services in confidence is an incomparable tool for securing help and support.

Since 2012, our constitution has recognised that children’s individual rights must be valued above and beyond their role as a part of the family unit. Maintaining our low digital age is nothing less than continuing our recognition of the inherent value of children as distinct persons under the law.

In that spirit, we must be mindful of the lived experiences of young people in the online realm. While there are real problems surrounding social media, it must be borne in mind that young people’s experiences are, on the whole, positive. Research by DIT has shown that more than three in five Irish children have a social media profile, including more than 75 per cent of 13-14-year-olds. And yet only 12 per cent of Irish children have reported a negative experience with personal data misuse of any kind, according to a wide-ranging study by the London School of Economics.

The positive impacts of internet access on young people are under-documented. For instance, a study by the Pew Research Centre found young people were significantly more likely to report positive experiences online than negative ones. Janice Richardson, former coordinator of the European Safer Internet Network, and Dr David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire have both argued strongly that the internet has a positive impact on several aspects of youth behaviour.

Protection

All of this is not to downplay the very serious problems some young people face online. Issues such as cyberbullying and online safety are concerns that must be met with a robust and detailed policy response. But we must not fall into the trap of assuming an arbitrary and ineffectual age restriction will have any effect beyond curtailing rights and encouraging even more young people to lie about their age online.

If we want to get more serious about protecting young people online, we would be better off enforcing policies that will make a real difference: strengthening digital rights education in schools, and addressing a growing digital divide between generations, to name just two.

On the last point, it is simply unacceptable that more than half of Irish parents report feeling a “frustrating lack of knowledge about privacy techniques, filtering and passwords controls”, according to the DCU anti-bullying centre. Tackling this issue will go much further towards helping parents than a knee-jerk assault on the existing rights of young people online.

So let’s focus on the real issues we face in building a better online space for our young people, and choose an approach grounded in education and empowerment for young people and their families. We already know online age checks have not worked in the past. Education, on the other hand, is something we know does work.

Ian Power is executive director of SpunOut.ie, Ireland’s youth information website and president of the National Youth Council of Ireland

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