First Click: Europe wants to raise the age of internet consent to 16

December 15th, 2015

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Duncan Robinson, Murah Ahmed, Hannah Kuchler reporting for the Financial Times on a last-minute amendment to EU data protection rules:

"The amendment states that processing data of ‘a child below the age of 16 years shall only be lawful if and to the extent that such consent is given or authorized by the holder of parental responsibility over the child’. In previous drafts, this limit applied only to those 13 and under."

Negotiations around the law began today, and could be approved as early as tonight before ratification by the European Parliament in the new year. Countries would then have two years in which to implement the new rules.

Teens, of course, aren’t happy with the news. My 13 and 14-year-old sons are active Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, and WhatsApp users, ignoring Twitter and Facebook because those are for "the olds." Both reacted with the kind of righteous indignation you’d expect from their hormonally-charged brains.

"That’s stupid," my boys said in unison, as if rehearsed. "We’re old enough already," added my oldest unequivocally.

"Did you know that companies and governments build profiles of your online behavior?" I implored, knowing that most teens are unaware. "Tracking every place you visit on the web, who your friends are, where you live, and what you like? Did you know that all those things that you say and do, things you might later regret, are preserved forever, accessible to any casual acquaintance or future employer?"

They stared at me blankly, as if to retrench. "Well, it wouldn’t really work because people will just lie," said my youngest in retort, a boy who’s had Instagram and Snapchat accounts since he was 12 despite US and European laws restricting use to people aged 13 and older. "I just always enter 1988 for my birthday anyway… because it’s a cool number."

This, in a nutshell, is what Europe faces by raising the age of internet consent to 16. A move that will likely have little impact on the number of tech-savvy teens using restricted services. Moreover, it’s unclear how the age limit could be enforced rendering its implementation as pointless and annoying as having to accept a cookie usage policy on every new website visited.

Still, I understand the sentiment behind the amendment as a means for protecting teens from unscrupulous onlookers, and for keeping parents informed of the apps and services their kids are using. The vast majority of adults old enough to have parented a teen aren’t using Snapchat or Instagram, according to Pew Research, and therefore have little insight into how these social networks are used. My kids use Instagram very differently than I do, for example.

It’s not enough anymore for parents to teach kids how to cope with the physical world they inhabit without giving equal emphasis to virtual worlds. Not with teens spending an average of 9 hours per day online according to Common Sense, a non-profit organization focused on helping families, lawmakers, and educators make sense of media and technology.

Most would agree that parents should be aware of how their children use the internet. But casual observation and regular checkins with teens would prove far more valuable to the task than just another internet checkbox.

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