5 reasons why children should not require compulsory parental consent for internet service access
Janice Richardson, an international expert on internet safety has approched EPA asking for support of the statement below. She was one of the keynote speakers at the Lisbon EPA conference on the challenges of the digital age. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was approved by the EU last year and will be compulsory for all EU countries. There is regulation in the GDPR making it compulory to acquire parental consent for the use of any online service for children, a step that restricts parents' rights, there are pedagogical concerns about it and it is likely to widen the digital divide. Thus the Board of EPA decided to fully support the statement.
Few adults doubt that adolescence is a most challenging period… the last thing we wanted when we were teenagers was to get permission from our parents for every book we brought home from the library or every place we went to meet our friends. Yet this would be the impact of Article 8 of the GDPR on our children’s right to access internet services, and it could give children in different EU member states different rights depending on whether the age 13, 14, 15 or 16 is the choice made. The United Nations Charter of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), signed by all countries in the world except two, recognizes the importance for all children to be able to access and share information (Article 13), exercise freedom of thought, conscience and religion whilst nevertheless being protected from radical and false information (Article 14), and meet and join groups, whilst also respecting the rights, freedoms and reputations of others (Article 15). Under Article 5, families are responsible for directing and guiding their children to learn to use their rights properly. By forcing the parents to provide consent for teens’ access internet services, not only is the GDPR restricting parents’ rights, it is also taking the onus off government and industry to provide services fully respectful of children’s rights, and forcing parents to make the analysis when few would claim to have either the time or the knowledge? Surely the aim should instead be to empower parents who are primarily responsible for empowering and supporting their children.
1. Empowering our children, enhancing their development
What scientific research will underpin national governments’ decisions to raise the age for requiring parental consent beyond 13? How can they make a single age mandatory when every child and every family is different? Research offers some guidance that is seemingly being neglected so far in the GDPR debate. According to Piaget’s 4-stage development theory which has basically remained uncontested for the past half century, at around age 12 children are usually already quite adept at reasoning as they enter the formal operation stage and have built up enough knowledge and action-based learning to make viable decisions. As a majority of children are online at age 8 nowadays, by age 13 they will have benefited from family and school guidance for at least 5 years, and would know which reliable adults to turn to when in doubt. It seems reasonable to consider that they would have the ground rules and experience in internet use to make their own choices by this age. Imposing the need for parental consent would be no more than paying lip service, or simply adding unnecessarily to the burden of parents in their children’s teenage years.
2. Autonomy, and its impact on adulthood
To take another approach, what is the impact of not giving teens sufficient autonomy as they move into adulthood? A 2014 study shows that teens of age 13 and above who are not given opportunities to practice self-directed, independent decision-making, are more likely to give in to decisions from friends and partners and less likely to be capable of establishing autonomy and closeness in relationships with friends and romantic partners. In this longitudinal study, both impacts persisted even eight years later. Research published in 2015 indicates that the level of autonomy a child has at age 13 is a predictor of both the quality of future relationships and of a person’s ability to manage autonomy and relatedness challenges across different social domains. Both studies show that freedom in accessing information of their choice is an important early step, especially in a field as important to most young people as internet services. Moreover, depending on the EU country, young people can legally enter sexual relationships at age 14, take on temp work at age 15, and drive motorized cycles at age 15.
3. Children, the heart of the matter
Children today live in digital-rich environments from a very early age. For all children, especially those from less-privileged families, internet offers an open window to the world and to broad-ranging opportunities. Research informs us that the more opportunities children benefit from, the greater the level of resilience they develop to avoid harm from risks. Today 80% of European citizens use internet regularly (95% in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Sweden) and, on average, 83% of the population in the EU-28 have broadband access at home. In 2014, 68% of young people (aged 9–16 years) used social network sites, and mainly accessed them through smartphones. This indicates that a majority of parents or care-givers have opted for, or at least accepted, the flexibility that smartphones offer over the added monitoring possibilities of the home broadband connection. Despite increasing awareness and a constantly growing range of technical tools that can assist the monitoring of children’s online activities, few families use them. In the UK Ofcom report (2016), 89% of parents state that they trust their 12 to 15-year old children to use the internet safely and 69% consider their children know more about the internet than they do. The UK government’s ‘Active choice’ initiative shows the futility of applying regulations families don’t want, with almost 90% of parents getting rid of mobile phone filters when they can. Are parents sufficiently enlightened to want their children need to benefit fully from online opportunities to build their resilience in an increasingly technology impregnated world, and foresighted enough to want their children to become technology-adept in order to increase their chances on the labour market? Perhaps it is simply a matter of knowing that confidence builds trust.
4. Digital citizenship and societal debate
Article 8 of the GDPR could bring about a far-reaching effect and, pending parental consent which may not always be forthcoming, force teens who have been building their profiles, YouTube channels, vlogs or even product lines over the past one or two years to have to delete their work. Politicians and educators alike have been vaunting the value of public consultation in the quest to build digital citizenship, but where is the public debate on the GDPR? More pertinently, how can we ensure that young people from all walks of life can participate in any public consultation when the required consent may depend on the cultural and religious beliefs of their parents? Schools, especially in today’s cultural-melting-pot societies, are one of the few available means of promoting democracy by supporting children and young people to build shared values and culture, and online technology is proving invaluable in helping them develop their digital citizenship skills. In school classes where not all parents provide consent for internet access, even for schoolwork, will teachers need to deprive these pupils of important opportunities, or will they have to deprive the majority so as not to discriminate against the few? At the national level, what will be the impact if one Greek or English or French speaking country chooses a different “age of consent” than another country with the same ‘native’ language and hence using the same platforms? In the current state of societal unrest, it seems more important than ever that the European Union reinforces shared policies and harmonization, yet differing national opinions on the Article 8 debate could further push us into a patchwork of differing rights and freedoms for Europe’s future citizens.
5. Pitfalls of age verification – technically speaking
Lastly, but certainly not least, how will age-dependent legislation be implemented? A rapid tour of agencies specialized in age verification shows that the only sure method of age verification today is the cross-matching of private data across websites and services. But as the collection of personal data of minors is unauthorized anyway, isn’t this just another example of bureaucratic hypocrisy? Wouldn’t that energy be better spent by ensuring that the public, private and civil sectors implement all necessary measures to protect every citizen from the illegal collection and exchange of personal data, and to inform them of their rights and paths of recourse when these are breached. Young people have grown up with technology and in a majority of cases better understand how to protect their privacy and their online life than adults.
The implementation of the GDPR will reinforce the rights of citizens in a number of ways. We wish to underline the importance of involving children and parents, amongst the main beneficiaries to have their say in the debate. To this end we have opened a discussion page at https://www.facebook.com/GDPRhaveyoursay/, and engaged almost 500 persons in just 2 days. We request that the European Union opens a public debate to raise awareness of the impact of data protection in the lives of all citizens, and encourage their reflection and input in the months to come.
Expert and advisor on literacy, rights and democracy,
Luxembourg, March 2017
 Piaget, J. (1977). The role of action in the development of thinking. In Knowledge and development. Springer US.
 Nauert, R, (24 October 2014). Parenting Style Impacts Teen Autonomy, Relationships. PsychCentral https://psychcentral.com/news/2014/10/24/parenting-style-influences-teen-autonomy-relationships/76535.html
 Oudekerk, B. A., Allen, J. P., Hessel, E. T. and Molloy, L. E. (2015), The Cascading Development of Autonomy and Relatedness from Adolescence to Adulthood. Child Dev, 86: 472–485. doi:10.1111/cdev.12313
 Byrne, J., Kardefelt-Winther, D., Livingstone, S., Stoilova, M. (2016). Global Kids Online Research Synthesis, 2015-2016. UNICEF Office of Research Innocenti and LSE, London.
 Livingstone , S., Mascheroni, G., et al (2014). Children’s online risks and opportunities: Comparative findings from EU Kids Online and Net Children Go Mobile. LSE, London.
 Eurostat (2016). http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Digital_economy_and_society_statistics_-_households_and_individuals#Internet_access
 Ofcom (Nov. 2016). Children and parents: media use and attitudes report. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/