Opinion: Do politicians in Brussels not have teenagers or why are they banning them from social media? | Opinion | DW | 16.12.2015
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Opinion: Do politicians in Brussels not have teenagers or why are they banning them from social media?

The new EU data protection regulations prohibit companies from handling data of anyone 15 or younger, raising the age for using social media from 13 to 16. The plan is out of touch with reality, says DW's Kristin Zeier.

The politicians in Brussels who negotiated the new EU data protection regulations obviously have little contact with young people and a limited understanding of the growing importance of social media in their lives. Otherwise they might have realized the ridiculousnessof their plans.

As parents of teenagers know, you can hold off the exposure to digital media only for so long, but eventually your kids gain access to it. When my daughter was 10 she got her first mobile phone. When she was 11 she got a smartphone. Shortly after that she was on Whatsapp and surfing YouTube. Then it was Instagram and now at 13 she’s asking for access to Snapchat and pondering where else she “needs” to be online.

The new norm: online at age 10

My daughter’s digital trajectory mirrors what parents across Europe are experiencing. A study published last year by the UK organization KnowTheNet.org shows that 59 percent of kids with Internet access have already used one social media network by age 10.

Not all young people join social media with parental permission, despite the fact that most companies require consent from a legal guardian for anyone opening an account under the age of 13. Setting up a social media account is an easy process - just a matter of a few clicks - and requires no identification. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a survey of 16-year-old and younger users of Facebook - the most popular site among young people – indicates that more than half of them lied about their age when they registered their account.

Age restrictions are unrealistic

When EU politicians introduce rules raising the age of digital consent for accessing social media services from 13 to 16, they are out of touch with the reality of teenagers. Not only that, but it is totally unrealistic to call for such restrictions, as there is no way to monitor or enforce age compliance without requiring social media companies to collect and retain even more personal data from everyone using their sites – a step that has rightly been criticized by privacy advocates.

More disappointing, though, is that these new guidelines put the onus on parents and Internet companies to control teenagers’ access to digital media while doing little to address problems young people encounter when they do go online - with or without parental permission.

Focus on education not restrictions

Privacy violations, cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, and sexting are the concrete concerns for children and their parents. And they don’t go away when the legal age for social media is raised to 16. A study conducted a few months ago by the Pew Research Center shows that one third of parents are concerned about the content their children encounter online and that they feel ill-equipped to deal with it.

Politicians in Brussels should listen more to parents and their kids. What we need is support for media competency training for young people, more education about safer web surfing, and more advice for parents and teachers to guide children through the Internet starting at an early age. The earlier children begin learning about the Internet and social media, the more likely they are to adopt good habits that protect themselves and others as they become more active online.

Social media is here to stay. It is an integral part of our lives and those of our children. So let’s not saddle these media platforms or younger users with ridiculous restrictions that force kids or parents to lie or deny them access to the educational and social opportunities we ourselves enjoy. Let’s focus our efforts on providing them with the skills they need to make the most out of the experience. That’s a policy parents and teens can both “like.”

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