The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is due to become law across the European Union in May 2018. As we have seen, a range of provisions within the GDPR are of particular importance to children and teenagers and their rights to participation and protection, including the proposal that under 16 year-olds should require parental consent to register for social networks and other online services. Here, an 18 year-old who blogs for Parent Zone offers a teenager’s perspective on how to approach the issue.

Turning sixteen is quite the milestone in the UK. You’re finally able to leave home, marry, join the army, and get a license to drive a moped, glider or hot air balloon. Soon it may also be the age when you are considered wise enough to use social media platforms without first asking for parental consent thanks to the GDPR.

A significant part of the GDPR is focused on protecting young people online, and as such it contains a number of provisions such as a right to be forgotten for young people, and encouraging clear, plain information about data processing that a child may understand. One significant point in the regulation is that services require parental consent to process the personal data of a child under the age of 16. At first glance each of these provisions appear beneficial and useful in the protection of young people’s privacy, but at what cost?

There is a clear conflict of interests between a child’s right to participate online and the concerns of parents. One may argue that the protection of children is paramount and thus should trump other rights, or that the risks of data processing are limited and are outweighed by the benefits that come with unfettered access to the internet. To make this decision we must understand the risks involved.

Targeted advertising is used by a large number of online services and is often the primary source of income for services which grant users free access. Every time we click “accept cookies” we are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs which allow advertisers to determine whether or not to advertise to you. Not to mention the catalogue of information we enter every time we sign up to the latest piece of the social media puzzle. All of this data can be and is being used to build a profile for each of us, allowing companies to know us better than our own parents.

Perhaps, as a young person I should be more concerned. My lack of privacy is almost Orwellian, particularly now that our government has got in on the action with the Conservatives spending roughly £1.2 million on targeted Facebook ads in the run up to the last election. They used people’s online profiles to target them based on their constituencies. All of this is rather unsettling but isn’t inherently risky, so what are the actual harms?

Well some people may argue that, were a fast food company to target advertising at young people, it may encourage an unhealthy lifestyle as children may not be aware of the risks of unhealthy eating. Perhaps this is true, but if it is then maybe we ought to take a slightly more nuanced approach, maybe by putting an age limit on specific types of advertising as opposed to certain types of service.

Another potential harm is that future employers or university admission officers will know so much about us that the application process to either a job or university may change completely. I am rather well versed in the university application process, having recently spent weeks on my own applications. There is, without doubt, a game involved when deciding what to tell the university. As a pupil I have been told to highlight my strengths and distract from my weaknesses. Dropping out of the science competition because I had a party to go to is apparently not something I needed to mention in my application. Completing a long distance fundraising run on the other hand is very much worthy of a mention. In a world where anyone can find out almost everything you’ve done since you played your first online game on mum’s laptop, employers and admissions officers need only look on Facebook to find out whether or not you’re a suitable candidate.

And of course this isn’t limited to school and work: your new landlord may change his mind about you when he finds out that you “liked” loud music, pets and indoor football. This maybe a little scary and it may lead to people being denied housing, school placements and jobs, but perhaps this is the future. Perhaps we are on the verge of the ultimate meritocracy where every new tab on your browser is a test of character.

I offer the opinion that a more nuanced approach is needed to address the protection of young people online. Whether we argue for more education on how to build a good digital footprint for young people or for more attention to the way companies are using our data as opposed to the way we share it, instead of taking the internet away from young people we should make the internet a safer place for everyone by engaging with social media platforms and other internet services.

I tend to disagree with attributing a level of internet access with a certain age, particularly when that age is some arbitrary number that has minimal evidence behind it. The question of whether age limits ought to be 13 or 16 seems rather unhelpful to me. Most offline laws seem to point towards 16 being the moment a child becomes an adult, so it would seem sensible to apply this standard across the board. Of course, there are multiple exceptions. The age of criminal responsibility, for example, which allows for someone as young as 10 to be charged with a crime and arrested. That makes me wonder why policy makers think someone as young as 10 is responsible for their actions when committing crimes, but not when posting selfies. I do not believe that the risks of internet use are so high that it should be kept out of reach of children. I think that there’s absolutely no reason why a 13-year-old, with proper education and engagement, cannot use the internet safely and responsibly. Otherwise we risk generations of people turning 16 with no practice using social media littering the internet with whatever their hormone-fuelled brains can think of, which I don’t think anyone wants to see.

This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. For more discussion of the GDPR and its potential impact on children and young people see here.

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