What should the age of online consent be?

Though legal changes are afoot, children’s safety on social media is a matter of education, reports Andrea Mara.

TrendMicro
Christian O'Farrell, 8, with Dave O'Callaghan, and Avril Ronan of Trend Micro.

Do you know what age your child must be to set up an Instagram account? In Ireland, the digital age of consent is 13, although many parents are not aware of this.

And even for those who are aware, it can be difficult to say no in the face of peer pressure and pester power — not only are their friends on social media, but celebrity children who are younger than 13 are openly online too.

Cruz Beckham is just 11 and has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, while Katie Price and Peter André have publicly talked about their differing views on their children’s social media accounts — Junior is 11 and Princess is just nine.

All of this is up for discussion because the EU has proposed a change to legislation meaning that each EU country must set the age of digital consent somewhere between 13 and 16 years of age. For parents worried about social media, a knee-jerk wish to see the age go to 16 would be understandable, but does it make sense?

Appropriate age

Avril Ronan is an online safety educator with global security firm Trend Micro based in Cork, and she doesn’t think rushing to change the age of consent is a good idea. “For me, education is the answer — it’s not just about age. If we’re going to move from 13 to something else, there should be recommendations based on research that show a particular age is appropriate.”

She makes the point that arbitrary numbers won’t stop teens from going online. “When I meet with teenagers at workshops, they say they feel younger kids need more protection online, but for their own age-group, it’s just a number — they’re smart and clever — they’re gong to find a way to be online.” So rather than trying to stop them going online until they’re 16, we need to assume they’re going to do it anyway, and teach them how to use the internet safely?

Avril with Judith Ehiguese of St Joseph’s College, Lucan.

“Exactly. So for example, they should have an understanding about advertising and cookies, and they should be savvy about risks. Our role as parents — as the people who put devices in their hands — is to take responsibility for keeping them safe and for educating them on the risks.”

Ronan, who has two children herself, points out that it’s not just about the dangers — grooming, sexting and sextortion — it’s also important to teach our children how to behave online themselves. “If they were rude to somebody face-to-face, you’d talk to them about it. It’s really important to teach them social skills and manners online too, especially because there’s no body language or tone. Teach them that being a troll isn’t the right way to do it.”

It’s also not just about social media. Young people use the internet for support, including mental health support, and this could be impacted by a change to the age of consent.

Derek Chambers is director of programmes and policy for ReachOut.com, a website providing mental health services for young people.

I asked him if ReachOut currently has users in the 13 to 16 bracket.

“We do. We adopt the youth mental health model of service provision, which means 12 to 25. This is based on a couple things, including the age of onset of mental health difficulties, 50% of which occur by the age of 14. But also on help-seeking behaviours — we know from research that 49% of people aged between 12 and 25 go online for mental health information and support.

"It’s become a first instinct and a natural way of seeking help,” says Chambers.

“Younger people have grown up with the internet and don’t know a world without it, whereas we’re probably the last generation of adults who do. So treating young people as key stakeholders, and to some extent experts in the debate is going to be important.”

Slow build-up

Whether the age of consent is 13 or 16, an outright internet ban until then may not be the best approach either. Ronan advocates a gradual build-up of knowledge and responsibility. “You don’t want to just turn it on at 13; there needs to be a slow build-up. They need to earn the responsibility. It’s like anything else; driving, boyfriends, discos.”

And while we’re teaching our children online etiquette and warning them not to post photos without permission, governments are starting to take a critical look at our online habits.

According to French privacy laws, parents posting images of their kids could face fines of up to €45,000 for breaching their children’s privacy, and indeed last year, an Austrian woman made headlines when she sued her parents for sharing embarrassing Facebook photos.

Coderdojo founder James Whelton, Avril Ronan of Trend Micro, and Sophie Halligan of Scoil Mhuire GNS Lucan.

Avril Ronan doesn’t share photos of her children online.

“I’m not going to dictate for other parents but the French law is thought-provoking. The government has sent out a strong message that parents are putting their children’s safety at risk.

"And similarly I welcome this discussion about the digital age of consent because it’s raising awareness. Children under 13 are already online. If the age moves to 16, it means there are no rights or protection for all those children under 16 who will inevitably be online anyway. This has to come back to education.”

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