Written by Andrew Carroll 

Is your inbox flooded by the “privacy policy update” notices from large tech companies including Facebook and Google, and even from parent-teacher associations, and yoga instructors? They are all acting due to the European Union’s newly passed toughest rules to protect people’s online data. The regulations already have an outsize impact not only on European nations but also countries beyond Europe. The General Data Protection Regulation known as GDPR aims to reign in the internet’s borderless nature.

Merely hours before EU’s GDPR took force, Ireland passed its Data Protection Bill 2018 in order to bring Ireland’s laws in line with the overarching EU regulation. While this bill brings heightened control over their own personal data for citizens, and hefty fines for companies that mistreat the information they hold on their customers, it is also being criticized by privacy experts.

The criticism on digital age of consent

One particular debate has been over the digital age of consent for children. The Joint Committee on Justice and Equality recommended that the digital age of consent would be set at 13. However, when the legislation was voted upon, a majority ruled in favor of setting the digital age of consent at 16 for the purposes of Article 8(1) of the GDPR. This essentially means that no data of the children under the age of 16 can be processed without parental consent with respect to online services.

The lawmakers in favor of 16-year limit argued that 13 years age is too young for children to make online decisions. They contend that children at age 13 do not have the capacity to contract. It is not about the use of internet or smartphones by the kids, the digital age of consent relates to the situations regarding the processing of personal data of a child, their right to information, online participation, and right to a voice.

What is the UK’s stance?

Ireland has done its part by introducing its Data Protection Bill 2018, the UK seems in no hurry to legislate upon kids’ online privacy right, especially since now they have no obligation to follow European rules after Brexit.

The UK culture secretary, Matt Hancock, still thinks it is a consensual topic between parents and children. He does not allow his own children to have smartphones and does not endorse legislating on the issue. Though Hancock thinks that keeping children safe online is critical, everybody especially the parents must ensure that their children use the technology appropriately. Parents can allow children to use internet for homework, but must not allow them to use social media. According to him, children should not have access to the devices and even his own children do not own a phone at 11 years-old.

He does not absolve the government from its responsibilities, in fact, it must play its role in ensuring that it is as easy as possible for the parents to keep their children safe online. UK government does not believe intervening more directly to control the exposure of children to new technology. He thinks laws passed by other countries like France in which children under 15 will not be able to use phones on school premises, are inappropriate. The UK’s culture secretary was of the opinion that we must mature as a society to make the most out of the technology, rather than gripping it with laws.

How should parents get around this one?

But it’s hard for the parents to control the internet use of their children in the digital age. Parents are often not on par with the technological trends that their kids follow. One way to control children’s internet or smartphone use has been through parental control apps or trackers similar to Xnspy or related solutions. Parents are using them on a consensual basis with their children to know about their online behavior and to stay informed about their smartphone use. Indeed, Xnspy or any other parental monitoring app cannot be the sole savior to protect the children, there must be legislation to force social media companies to take more responsibility for the content on their platforms.

The GDPR sets the children’s minimum digital consent age at 13 but with a default of 16. The Data Protection Act 2018 of the UK sets the digital consent age of children at 13 as compared to Ireland’s 16 years. All eyes are at the future social media legislation to fine the companies that fail to act on bullying and harassment on their platforms. Until then, parents are key to ensuring the safety of their kids online and to doing so vigilantly before it’s too late.


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