Raising the digital age of consent was an interesting proposal by the EU, one that should have encouraged an important debate
It may vary depending where you are in the world, but you must be a certain age before you can learn to drive. Equally, alcohol consumption, the right to vote and the ability to enrol in the army all have, by law, specific age requirements. One age requirement that may be unfamiliar to many, however, is the one required to have a social media account.
In late 2015, the EU proposed raising the ‘digital age of consent’ from 13 years of age to 16. Under these new rules one would not be allowed to process data of an under 16-year-old without parental consent, essentially meaning that under 16s would have to obtain permission from their parents before creating Facebook or Twitter accounts. However, member states will be able to have the age as low as 13, of which Britain has remained with. Even so, around 39% of 9 to 12 year olds have social media accounts, suggesting that even the current guidelines are not being met. Overall, the EU’s proposal brings up an interesting question; should access to social media sites by younger internet users be restricted to a certain age?
The arguments for this are quite compelling. The internet is fraught with many dangers; trolls and the sea of excessively derogative and harsh comments that they post on various sites make the online environment not exactly ideal for minors. Depressing stories of severe depression and even suicide as a result of such ungraciousness on the internet have surfaced over the years as social media sites have gained popularity, particularly amongst younger people.
Also, the tendency to become engrossed in virtual worlds, and therefore detached from reality, can have a harmful impact on the young mind. In an interview on BBC Newsnight, Dr Mary Aiken, a cyber psychologist, highlighted the impacts on a child’s development if they are exposed to the negative traits of the internet. For example, 9 to 12 years olds who have over 150 friends on Facebook may be susceptible to social exhaustion and unnecessary stress. In addition, younger people who become fixated with an idealised, and in some cases unrealistic, version of themselves can be very unhealthy. An unhelpful gulf that can emerge between a highly manipulated virtual version of themselves and their real-world selves is a path that can lead to depression and stress. The pressures of being able to take the ‘perfect selfie’ forces younger ones to focus on looks in a way that can shatter their self esteem. It also is not exactly helpful when many female celebrities portray themselves in an overly sexualised manner, causing teenage girls to become infatuated with the ridiculous task of resembling the inauthentic looks of Kim Kardashian.
It is not all doom and gloom though. The internet can provide some positive merits for young people to benefit from. Its openness and mass participation encourages the creation of niche cultures and groups. This can be good for those who may struggle to find friends with similar interests in the real world. Though another interesting dynamic of the internet is that it can help teenagers and younger users to get through stressful times. Heart-warming examples of this can be found in the YouTube vlogging (video blogging) sphere, where popular figures on the video-sharing site can invoke happiness into the lives of thousands of viewers of which they may never meet.
They manage to establish a unique and somewhat powerful connection and influence, of which can inspire a sense cheerfulness and positivity. In a vlog post in early April, Roman Atwood, a famous YouTube prankster, showcased pieces of artwork sent from his fans and viewers as tokens of their appreciation for his work. Among them included a detailed letter from a 17 year old viewer called Lewis in which he described how Roman’s videos have helped him get through difficult times in his life. Plenty of other instances of this have featured on Mr Atwood’s channel and other YouTubers have also been able to highlight such inspiring stories.
Having to obtain permission from parents may not necessarily dissuade 9 and 12 year olds from creating accounts on their own accord. The ages of those owning their first smartphones or tablets seem to be getting lower, and with that access to a whole array of social media apps become available to a younger audience. So in theory restricting such access to older teens may seem ideal, but in practice is fairly unrealistic. Overall, inexperienced minors embracing the internet is a worrying prospect; the rise of social engineering and hacking makes it especially dangerous for easily persuaded young minds to venture onto social media. Therefore, advising minors about how they can stay safe online from hackers, pedophiles and trolls could be go a long way. Often, telling a child not to do something without, or with a limited, explanation often intensifies their curiosity to do it anyway. Thus, educating them on the potent pitfalls may be a better dissuader.