With danger just a click away, we must act now to protect our children

Published date: 
16 Feb 2018

Opinion by Tanya Ward, Chief Executive published in the
Irish Independent, 16 February

I have two small children, and like most parents, I’m asking myself when is time to give them a phone. How much screen time should they have access to? And how do I protect them from bullying and people that might exploit them online.

I’m also worried about them being targeted by commercial interests who want to use their information and aggressively market products to them. Children and young people are more suggestive to advertising and I’m well aware in my line of work that they are hammered on a daily basis by alcohol and junk food adverts. Really I want to protect them altogether from these advertisements and I don’t want their data being used for commercial reasons.

There is a Data Protection Bill before our Oireachtas at the moment but it doesn’t go far enough to protect children and young people’s data. This is because EU law on data protection is about to change.

A regulation (‘the GDPR’ for short) will into force in May. It will set an age of digital consent to 16 years but can be lowered to 13. Meaning that a child below that age cannot consent to handing over their data unless they get parental consent. Instinctively this sounds like a good idea but when you unpick it you realise that it’s just not good enough to protect children’s data.

The US introduced the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998 to protect children from excessive marketing by industry. An age of digital consent was set at 13. But it just wasn’t enough to protect children from excessive marketing.

Unfortunately many children lied when they signed up to platforms without their parents’ consent and many parents themselves struggled with what it meant. Parents often suffered from consent fatigue and gave their consent so their child wasn’t excluded from a particular platform or information service. And indeed by giving their consent they were agreeing that a company could harvest their children’s data to sell it on or use it to target them with advertising.

The question we should be asking is how can we actually protect children’s data from big industry and commercial interests? Focusing exclusively on parental consent places an excessive burden on parents who are only catching up when it comes to the digital world. It provides the illusion of control while at the same time letting industry off the hook.

If we are truly concerned about how children are being manipulated by advertising and exploited commercially, we have to put the onus on industry to do a better job. Why can’t our politicians pass a law forbidding industry from using our children’s data for marketing and commercial purposes?

The debate at the moment is only centred on whether the age of digital consent is set at 13 or something higher like 16 years. But it fails to deal with the actual problem effectively. That children are being exploited online by commercial interests and being heavily marketed to. I’m concerned that if we raise the age of digital consent that it will just lead to more children and young people lying to their parents when it comes to their online behaviour. And that really worries me because I know if they do that they are less likely to tell their parents if something bad happened to them.

I’m also worried that parents may think that the digital age of consent means that they can’t set boundaries for their child when it comes to their online usage. The age of digital consent doesn’t change that. Parents still need to do their job.

The children and young people of today are the guinea pig generation when it comes to the digital world. For many it’s fundamental to their everyday lives. It’s how they socialise with friends. It’s how they do their homework. But it’s also a place where they are be endangered just with the click of a button. Yes there are people out there that want to harm children. Yes there are apps and platforms that are harmful to children and it’s our job to make the internet safer for them.

We need to educate children about being safe online. We need to educate parents about how to help their children navigate the online world and keep them safe. But we also need Government to do more to make children safe online.

We need more Gardai policing the online world. And we need a Digital Safety Commissioner. The Special Rapporteur Geoffrey Shannon has been calling for the establishment of such an office for years. We need to give this Commissioner power. Power to regulate industry and power to educate.