Warnings over social media use by children

Two leading online safety experts have called on the Government to hold social media companies accountable for underage usage on their platforms.

Underaged drinking is not condoned or allowed, but the underage use of social media is rampant and accepted, they told an Oireachtas meeting.

Professors Barry O’Sullivan and Mary Aiken said they want to state “unequivocally” their opposition to the Government’s decision to set the digital age of consent at 13.

Prof O’Sullivan is deputy president of the European Artificial Intelligence Association and Prof Aiken is an academic adviser to Europe’s’s European Cyber Crime Centre.

They want to increase the planned legal age at which children can sign legal agreements with social media or gaming companies by three years to 16.

At a meeting of the children and youth affairs committee they warned that great care should be taken about when parents are taken out of the equation.

The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into effect on May 25, will formalise age protective measures online. The EU has set the digital age of consent at 16 but allows each state to decide a national age of consent which can be as low as 13.

The Data Protection Bill 2018, which proposes a digital age of consent of 13, was submitted to the Seanad earlier this month and is under consideration.

Prof Aiken, adjunct associate professor at University College Dublin’s Geary Institute for Public Policy, said “liberal” countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have chosen 16 as their digital age of consent.

Britain will be imposing a stricter code of practice for protecting children’s privacy online by including provisions for 13 to 17-year-olds who are above the digital age of consent but are still children.

Prof O’Sullivan, founding director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at University College Cork, said there is a need to stop “conflating” a child’s right to access information with the digital age of consent.

The digital age of consent relates explicitly to the age at which a child can sign legal agreements with online service providers who gather, profile, sell and commercialise his or her data.

“In Ireland, you can’t buy a dog license at 13, but our kids in May could be in a situation where they could sign up to a system that gathers almost everything about them on their device and uses that for commercial purposes,” said Prof O’Sullivan.

Prof Aiken said the companies would also have access to family photos.

“So it is not just compromising the security of the child but also of the family,” she said.

“We are both pro-technology, we just want to introduce it in an age-appropriate way, and we want to include parents in the process. If children could reach the age of 15 in an environment where they had maximum levels of parental involvement and protection we would be doing a great job.”

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