It has been a long time since access to the Internet was a luxury in the modern world. For American teenagers, the Internet is essential for news, job and school applications, academic research, and keeping in touch with friends and family.
The current generation of American children and teens has never known a time without ready access to the Internet–they don’t even know what it was like to spend 20 minutes waiting for their web browser to display a black-and-white photo on a dial-up connection–and that can be scary for parents. The Internet is a useful and wonderful tool, but it can also be a hive of misogyny, racism, bullying, and pornography. Most parents and adults want to protect their kids from exactly that sort of thing, but banning social media use is not the answer.
The E.U., however, is mulling doing exactly that with a new update to the European Data Protection Regulation that would make it illegal for teens under the age of 16 to use social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more without their parents’ consent. Currently the law bans such use for children under 13, which Huffington Post technology journalist and ConnectSafely.org chief executive Larry Magid says is consistent with such laws in most of the rest of the world.
The Internet can certainly be a scary place, and we shouldn’t be letting children run about on it completely unsupervised, but at the same time social media is essential to the way modern teenagers interact with each other, make friends, and in many cases access support services and communities that they would not otherwise be able to find.
“I worry that it could actually endanger and disenfranchise young people at the very time when we should be doubling down on their engagement in social media and world events,” Magid said.
On top of all that, this law doesn’t seem like it will actually stop any teens from doing whatever they want. Making social media use illegal will just make teens more likely to lie about their ages online and keep their activities secret from parents and authority figures, and that’s the last thing most parents want.
The E.U.’s new law is expected to be signed on Tuesday, December 15, but Janice Richardson, expert to ITU and the Council of Europe, former coordinator of European Safer Internet network thinks it will do significantly more harm than good. In an essay for Medium, she writes: “As experts working for the safety and wellbeing of children online, we feel that moving the requirement for parental consent from age 13 to age 16 would deprive young people of educational and social opportunities in a number of ways, yet would provide no more (and likely even less) protection.”
Children and teenagers need guidance and tools to help them use the Internet responsibly. Social media use should absolutely be regulated and monitored by parents, who should do their best to maintain an open line of communication about what their kids are doing on the Internet and what they are seeing there, but the Internet is not the enemy, and banning kids from social media is not at all the answer.