John Dolan: What’s the point of having laws to ban kids from social media if EVERYONE just ignores them?

Why are so many parents happy to allow their children to open social media accounts without giving their consent and free to post what they want? So asks John Dolan
John Dolan: What’s the point of having laws to ban kids from social media if EVERYONE just ignores them?

In Australia new privacy laws are set to force children in that country who are under 16 to obtain a parent or guardian’s permission before they log into a social media account.

SO, when was the last time you gave consent to one of your kids aged under 16 to use their Instagram or Tik-Tok account?

Or when was the last time you sent a message via WhatsApp to one of your children?

Do you realise that only people aged over 16 are allowed to use any of the above without your consent in Ireland? (Indeed, WhatsApp bars any under 16 from using its site, consent or not).

Does this bother you?

Oh, but of course you are very worried about the damage that can be done on social media to vulnerable children: about the predators that lurk there, and about the bullies that can do serious harm to a youngster’s mental health.

Yes, all of that concerns you.

But no, you neither know nor care about the laws already in place to prevent this. Is that a fair summation of the attitude of the large majority of parents in this country to the Wild West landscape that is social media?

I firmly believe it is.

A strange attitude has been adopted to the rise and rise of the online world, not just in Ireland, but in almost every jurisdiction around the world.

There is a recognition that social media, for all its uses, can be damaging and dangerous, especially for young people. There is also a recognition that the giant social media giants are doing precious little to address these negatives aspects of their empires.

But, get this - even when laws are drafted and introduced, nobody takes a blind bit of notice of them. There appears to be zero monitoring of these new laws, and as a result zero prosecutions.

I was reminded of this bizarre situation this week, when I read that Australia was launching a crackdown on the age of consent when it comes to social media.

New privacy laws are set to force children in that country who are under 16 to obtain a parent or guardian’s permission before they log into a social media account.

Aha, I thought, that’s a great idea.

Australia has acquired a reputation of late as a global forerunner when it comes to facing down these social media giants, who treat the world like it’s their personal piggy bank: a place with no borders, few rights and fewer responsibilities.

Earlier this year, its government became the first to pass a law aimed at making Google and Facebook pay for news content on their platforms.

Now it was aiming to put it up to the social media behemoths by introducing strict laws about the age of subscribers and users, and threatening those companies with fines of up to $10million for breaking those rules.

“The privacy practices of online platforms can be detrimental to children and vulnerable persons, including sharing data for advertising purposes, or engaging in harmful tracking, profiling, or targeted marketing,” the draft legislation says.

It was a timely announcement, as Facebook recently faced a barrage of criticism after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies claiming to show the company knew of potential harm stoked by its sites.

All of this sounded like a great idea: More power to Australia’s elbow, I mused.

Except for one fatal flaw.

If this new legislation is anything like the legislation that has been already introduced elsewhere in the world - including, yes, here in Ireland - it is doomed to be about as much use as a handbrake on an out-of-control rocket.

That’s because it will be studiously ignored by many of the actors in this ongoing drama: The children it is supposed to protect; the parents who are supposed to protect them; the social media giants who are meant to monitor it; the enforcement groups who are meant to police it; and the courts who are meant to implement it.

A blind eye will be turned because... well, I’m really not sure why the world is so lax when it comes to policing the internet, but it is; I know many reading this will be complicit in it too.

As I mentioned, Ireland already has laws in relation to children using social media platforms.

Article 8 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) directed countries in the EU to set a minimum age at which online service providers, including social media companies, can rely on a child’s own consent to process their personal data.

In Ireland, the Data Protection Act 2018 here set the age of digital consent at 16.

This means that if an organisation is relying on consent as the legal basis for processing a child’s personal data and the child is under 16, consent must be given or authorised by the child’s parents or guardians.

Now, it’s not as though the many GDPR rules have been knowingly flouted by companies and individuals since they came into force. On the contrary, there is a recognition that they are necessary and there to protect people.

But when it comes to Article 8... well, have you heard of any arrests, cautions, fines, or prosecutions lately?

Ireland actually won praise and kudos back in 2018 for adopting the under 16 restriction. When the EU adopted the GDPR rules, it allowed Member States to set their own minimum age that a user must be before a social media and internet companies can collect, process and store their data, setting a bare minimum of 13.

Ireland set their minimum at 16, along with the likes of France, The Netherlands, and Germany.

Other countries, such as the UK, Denmark, and Sweden, set their minimum age at 13, which is the usual minimum age for joining set by the social media giants themselves.

But what is the point of setting any minimum age at all if the law will be blatantly ignored by all and sundry?

It’s understandable, but not forgiveable, I hasten to add, that social media giants will do the bare minimum when it comes to restricting access to its sites. To join Facebook for instance, you just require a first and last name, valid email address, password, gender and birth date. The only information Twitter seeks is a name, unique email address, a password, and a username.

It’s even understandable, and quite forgiveable, that police forces and other law enforcers around the world will have better things to do than arrest the parents of 15-year-old Tadgh for sending a WhatsApp message.

But what I cannot understand, and find simply inexcusable, is that so many parents are happy to join in with this unholy dance and allow their children to open social media accounts without giving their consent, and then simply allow them free rein on who they talk to and what they post.

Until parents start to exercise their right to play by the rules, I fear the Wild West online world will continue to wreak havoc in the minds of people who are too young, immature and vulnerable to understand the nature of the internet beast.

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