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Social Media and the Age of Consent

We’ve all seen a lot of emails recently seeking our ‘consent’. In this blog David Wright, Director of SWGfL, a partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, looks at what parents and members of the children’s workforce need to be aware of.

SWGfL’s specialist team of online safety experts deliver a wide range of bespoke training and awareness sessions to children, parents and organisations that work with young people. In this blog we look at a popular topic of discussion in these sessions at the moment: digital consent

Our inboxes have been swollen recently with a rising tide of requests seeking our ‘consent’. The cause of this is GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) - the new European-wide regulations that swept in a raft of new measures aimed at better protecting, amongst many things, our personal data.

Digital consent

GDPR ushered in the ‘age of digital consent’ (which for the UK is now 13). Before GDPR we inherited the minimum age of 13 as result of legislation in the US called COPPA (Child Online Privacy and Protection Act). As a result children, parents and organisations up and down the country are facing a test of their morals and ethics and it is a subject that has prompted considerable debate in our training sessions recently. What are we talking about? Age verification.

More than ever before, users are required to confirm they meet providers' minimum age requirements. The challenging question is therefore for those children - and hopefully their parents - who are under-age. 

WhatsApp

This has prompted many discussions with parents in our training sessions specifically about WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is a free, cross-platform messaging service owned by Facebook. Like so many providers WhatsApp now asks its users to confirm their age, but uniquely, WhatsApp raised its minimum age rating earlier this year from 13 to 16. This means that the number of those affected by this change is significantly higher (i.e. anyone under the age of 16).

So what? I hear you ask…it’s easy just to agree.

Indeed it is, however it is clear that this is a deliberation for many parents. Some in our sessions were unaware of a minimum age at all. Some wondered why there was a minimum age. Others asked why the change, is Whatsapp safe? And of course there were some that were not so bothered. 

A further dimension emerged, when it turned out the school used WhatsApp as a way of communicating with children. 

Our advice on this would be that any school (indeed any group or organisation) that uses WhatsApp to communicate with children might want to review their policy.

Is it a crime?

Another question we're asked is whether it is illegal for anyone under the age of consent to use these services. In short no, it is not illegal. It is however a violation of the terms and conditions.

Typically the service provider would be the one guilty of committing an offence if they knowingly have personal data on anyone under-age (for example if an account was reported). 

There are services out there that are available to under 13s and they require parental permission to store that data. To check a providers age of consent – simply find their privacy statement and it will describe their particular approach to children.

Have a conversation

What this does is present parents with a golden opportunity to talk to their children about the social media sites they use, how they use them and who they are in touch with. If you're stuck on how to approach these then you may find these conversation starters helpful.

Earlier this year the UK Safer Internet Centre published its report into ‘Digital Friendships’, on Safer Internet Day 2018. The findings reveal how central technology is to young people’s relationship and the many different platforms they are using to interact with each other. It also highlights both the positive and negative role that technology can play in young people’s relationships.

If you’re a parent, you can also find lots of helpful advice and resources available in the advice section of the website.

Book a training session

If you would like to learn more about the latest trends and advice when it comes to online safety issues, covering things such as gaming, screen time and social media you may want to book one of our training sessions, where one of our experts will come to you and deliver a session that's tailored to your needs.