In light of a number of highly disturbing incidents involving children and social media recently, debate has been sparked about online identification and age restrictions. It’s a discussion that’s long overdue.
While Twitter and Facebook have been focused on the army of Russian bots said to have influenced the 2016 US election through their platforms, Irish users may be more concerned about the spate of child pornography cases emerging.
The Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard this week that Matthew Horan, a 26-year-old from Clondalkin, used a collection of social media sites such as Snapchat and Kik to sexually exploit six Irish girls, some as young as 9.
In the UK, police have revealed that at least 200 children under the age of 12 have been documented for the transmission of explicit images since 2015.
There’s a question here that must be asked; how many times can this be allowed to happen before we start enforcing age-limits on these increasingly dangerous platforms?
Minister for Mental Health Jim Daly, speaking on Claire Byrne Live, put forward the idea that the oft-maligned Public Services Card could be used for identification purposes across social media platforms.
“Child protection, in my mind, will trump data protection all day every day,” said the West Cork TD. “It’s the adults who are pretending to be children and who are befriending these children … that’s the issue.”
While Minister Daly’s concern for the kids here cannot be questioned, his plan to link users to their Public Services Card for identification couldn’t have gone down any worse. The card has already come under fire for how it shares information across government departments and some fear the addition of social media registrations to the card will cause further privacy concerns.
As unwelcome as this particular idea may be however, something has to be done. The dangers of social media on young minds are only really being uncovered in the last year or so, but the results are terrifying.
In the US, the number of teenage girls with depressive symptoms has jumped by 50% since 2012, with factors such as loneliness and sleep deprivation all correlating to higher social media usage.
So why haven’t we done anything about it? Other damaging, addictive habits like smoking and drinking are illegal for those under 18 and rightly so. They adversely affect younger minds and endanger them to the point where it is extremely irresponsible to allow them to consume such things. Alex Hern makes a good argument for this in The Guardian.
Perhaps it’s because the likes of Facebook hold even more political and corporate power than Big Tobacco ever did. When the revelations about the damage smoking did to its user’s health were revealed, a fight was started to protect the most vulnerable. A similar fight must be started now.
Maybe the simplest thing we can do is impose an age restriction, and yes, an actual age restriction, instead of Facebook’s “click to confirm you are over 13” paper door. Whether that limit is set at 13, 16 or 18 is a matter for further discussion but to allow young children continued access to an unsafe, unregulated environment is deeply troubling.
Age verification would also solve the problem of sexual predators posing as teenagers in order to lure victims into false sense of security, it’s hard to pose as a cool, young kid when your real age of 46 is hanging next to your username.
The Public Services Card may not be the way to go with this, the card already has bad PR and too many concerns about privacy. Perhaps a system requiring a PPS number for age verification (and only age verification) may be a better fit for the situation, everyone already has one after all.
But whatever happens, the brief age of unrestricted, unmoderated social media is coming to an end. There have been too many incidents, too many deaths and too many health concerns. We must stop for a minute and realise that if something is not done soon we could be pushing the next generation into a nightmarish future.
We have a responsibility to those most vulnerable in society, that principle cannot be abandoned for the sake of wishing to stay anonymous online.
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