Guest blogger Ethan Shattock explains the ‘Digital Age of Consent’ and how this may impact on children’s use of the Internet
What is the Digital Age of Consent?
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 consent of their parent or guardian. It is a component of the broader, EU-wide General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which are due to come into effect from May 2018. On Wednesday 26th July 2017 the decision was made in Ireland that parental consent must be given for any child under the age of 13, to access online services. This decision marks an important clarification in the regulation of online consent and the online actors who can have access to the information of children and teenagers. Consent is a key part of the new GDPR and is addressed in articles 6-11. Specifically, the issue of a child’s consent is dealt with in Article 8.
What Does This Decision Mean For Children, Parents and Service Providers?
From May 2018, children under the age of 13 will need consent “from the holder of parental responsibility over the child” before data controllers can process their data. Traditionally, businesses have used consumer data to predict purchasing trends. In theory the new legislation will mean that direct marketing from companies and social media sites will not be able to target children’s data without clear and affirmative consent. While this seems to create higher levels of accountability, the reality is that even with the new regulation, there is no significant onus on companies to properly verify the age of the user. They will simply have to make “reasonable efforts” to verify that parental consent is given if required. The likelihood is that the different terms and conditions of company policies will ultimately deal with how age is verified.
Digital Age of Consent: Pros & Cons
Setting a Digital Age of Consent provides much needed legal certainty and clarity when it comes to children accessing content and surrendering personal information online. Whilst many of the social media providers have already set a minimum user age of 13, this legislation makes it a legal requirement within the EU to obtain parental consent for any usage under this age and to make reasonable efforts to verify that parental consent is given. It is also encouraging that the age of consent chosen by Ireland (13) is in line with that recommended by the Ombudsman for Children, the Children’s Rights Alliance and the National Youth Council of Ireland as well as CyberSafeIreland, the Irish children’s charity for online safety.
However, it is questionable whether a one-child-fits-all approach will work. In reality many under-age internet users will continue to access the same websites and just lie about their age to do so, which may expose them to adult content and advertising. It is also impossible to implement safeguards for younger users if they cannot be honest about their age. Setting any age of digital consent may drive some children’s online activity “underground”, and children are more vulnerable where no rules have been set, and there is no parental engagement or supervision.
A challenge that may emerge going forward is around the consistency and clarity of the regulation, given that EU countries can choose any age between 13 and 16 and also because many of the providers are based in the US and are consequently bound by US legislation. Another open question is how to extend digital rights and protections to the many underage users of these platforms. Whilst many questions remain, what we do know is that technology plays an ever increasing role in children’s lives, and we need to educate them to ensure that they use technology in a safe and positive way. Classroom-based, evidence-based intervention is key, but this should be combined with parental guidance and oversight. A national awareness campaign would help to ensure that parents are adequately supported, and that where parental consent is given, this is done on an informed basis. It is clear that we need clear and strong leadership on this issue and a national strategy on online safety would surely be a good starting point.