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Friday 2 June 2023 Dublin: 14°C
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Children online 'Is 13 the appropriate age for digital consent?'
The increase in technology being given at Christmas means it’s important to ensure the Internet is a safe place for kids, writes Avril Ronan.

MORE THAN EIGHT out of ten parents bought a technology-related gift for their child this year, with the most popular buys being tablets, video games and smartphones. Whether it’s smartphones or toys with interactive apps though, this year’s top Christmas presents all connect to the Internet.

Like all parents, I worry all the time about my kids and yet, while the Internet has many risks and dangers, I want my kids to be online. I want them to be respectful and enjoy it, but I also want them to be safe and responsible when they are using it.

As an online safety educator, I welcome the proposed changes to the digital age of consent and the public consultation process for one reason: it is shining a spotlight on being online.

Legislating for digital consent

The proposed change to the Digital Age of Consent legislation means that each EU country must set the age of digital consent for children somewhere between 13 and 16 years of age.

In Ireland the digital age of consent is currently set at 13 (it’s when a child can avail of Internet services) but we can decide to change this age upwards as far as 16. This change applies to any Internet service that uses personal data of minors so covers all social networks, gaming, email and apps.

Without evidence-based research that recommends what the appropriate age for digital consent should be, changing the age right now is a numerical choice. Whether the age is changed or remains at 13 the only real approach and solution to this debate is online safety education.

As a small nation with so many of the world’s leading technology companies based locally, there is a real opportunity for Ireland to set standards ensuring that children of all ages can use and enjoy the Internet in a fun, safe and responsible way.

Yes, the Government must hold Internet services accountable for upholding the law. And yes, every Internet service has a duty of care, not just to abide by the digital age of consent but they must go above and beyond that. They must provide accessible and easily understood information about their service, its safety, privacy and use (including data storage and use).

Safeguarding must begin at home

Technology stock PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

The responsibility of safeguarding our children online begins at home. We as parents and guardians are the first to place a device in the hands of our children so we have to educate ourselves to enable us to support, guide and protect our children online.

Here are some realities to consider. All sorts of data can be collected by an Internet service about your child, including name, age, DOB, address, current location, photos, chat history, fingerprints, voice recognition and physical attributes. No service forces you or your child to use their service so we need to do our homework first before engaging with anything new.

According to French privacy laws, parents posting images of their children online could face a fine of up to €45,000 for breaching their child’s privacy or endangering their security online. And a recent ParentZone survey in the UK found that parents post an average of 1500 images of their children online before their child reaches the age of 5. That’s about 25 images a month.

Do parents have the right to post images of their children online? Young people take their online reputation very seriously and this is a topic for discussion at all ages, not just among the young.

Parents unaware of the minimum age to be on social networks

Children under 13 are already online. They are faking their age to gain access to services that they want to use. This is a fact. So much more needs to be done by service providers everywhere to tackle this issue of underage use.

Online age verification solutions are being developed around the world, yet I struggle to see how they can be 100% effective. Aside from the cost of implementing this across the Internet, how would it be enforced?

Kids are smart. They will outwit any system

Young people are creators of technology and we already have inspiring young Irish entrepreneurs. We want our kids to be smart and savvy online so there is a simpler more cost effective way of empowering our youth to be great online, and that is through education.

I believe that from a young age, children should be permitted to be online. We need comfort in knowing that when we as parents are not around, that children will be in a better position to make responsible decisions on their own or at least feel comfortable talking. Growing up with your child online means that you start off with parental controls from a young age, educating them about being safe online. Your role as a parent slowly evolves as your child matures, earning them more responsibility online.

At the end of the day, while laws must abide to protect the rights of a child, neither restrictions, controls, verification processes nor algorithms will replace the parent and teacher in the important role of education. There is no magic app to tackle this, it comes down to parenting, education and honest conversations.

Avril Ronan is a pro-tech parent of two small children. She worries about her kids all the time and yet when it comes to being online, Avril is passionate about ensuring that we take a balanced view of the Internet and all things tech. In her role as Global Programme Manager for Trend Micro, Avril is responsible for Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families Programme (ISKF) which has reached over 100,000 parents, educators and students across Ireland over the past 5 years.

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