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Europeans Teach Us a Lesson About Banning Teens From Social Media

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2015-12-21-1450718694-5684729-ScreenShot20151221at9.10.52AM.pngEuropean lawmakers tried to shove the genie back in its bottle last week by banning kids under 16 from using Internet services that collect personal data--including social media, apps, email, and more--without parental consent.

Many greeted this idea with two words: good luck. If there's one thing teens aren't going to give up soon, it's their connection to their friends. And while there are sound arguments on both sides of the fence on why this amendment to the European Union's major overhaul of its data protection laws was either a sound or nutty idea, it was never going to work. Digital kids already weaned on Instagram and Snapchat would have found a way to circumvent this ban. They always do.

So in a last minute compromise, E.U. lawmakers decided to let individual countries apply their own laws on the age of consent. This means many countries will "likely maintain their current laws allowing children 13 and older to use Internet services, in line with many other countries around the world."

We Can't Even Keep Under-13 Year Olds Off Social Media

In the U.S. we have a law called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that restricts personal data from being collected from children under 13 without parental permission. Because of this law, nearly every social media network requires that children be at least 13 years of age to use its services. Yet you'd be surprised at how many parent presentations I've given where this information comes as a surprise to adults. Maybe we're just too busy or tired, or both, to pay attention to our kids' digital lives. Whatever the reason, there are boatloads of kids under 13 who use social media, sometimes even with parental knowledge and consent. We all know it and give it a collective shrug.

I talk to students about this during middle school digital literacy classes (yes, that's a thing at some lucky schools, more about it in a minute). Kids absolutely do not view giving Snapchat a fake birthdate as "lying." Because social media networks make this so darn easy to do, it's like a free bowl of candy in a candy store to kids... theirs for the taking.

You've Got To Hand It To The Europeans For Caring So Much About Privacy

The under-16 ban was just a footnote to a major overhaul of European privacy laws, ultimately giving consumers more control over how their personal data is used and retained. Sweeping new legislation will restrict social networking and other companies that collect personal information from sharing that information with third parties without the consumer's permission, among other things.

By adding the 16-under ban, European lawmakers were assuming that young teens are incapable of understanding the complexities of Internet privacy and protection.

That's where they are wrong.

I just taught a digital literacy unit on "Privacy" to 7th graders (in case you're not a parent, these are 12 to 13 year olds). They learned about third parties, cookies, customization, personally identifiable information (including why it's collected and what companies do with it). At the end of this unit students had to demonstrate their understanding through final projects--"inventing" their own online services in order to explain what kind of data they would collect and what protections they'd put in place to gain the trust of their customers. These kids had some excellent ideas that I would love to share with the E.U. Perhaps adults should be turning to those who use the Internet most to learn how to improve it.

In No More Social Networking for Young Teens, Professor Sonia Livingstone provides an excellent overview of the impact the legislation would have had on children and how children interact with social networking platforms. She explains the thinking behind the new age limits as follows,

[C]urrently the data practices targeting adults are the same as those for kids...these are unfair in the sense that they exceed reasonable expectations of a young teen's digital literacy.

Perhaps we should raise our reasonable expectations of a young teen's digital literacy. Since kids between 13 and 16 have proven very adept at using the very Internet services the ban would have restricted them from (moreso than their parents I daresay), why not teach them how to protect themselves online by offering all students digital literacy lessons?

The one good thing that has come out of this European debate is that it has widened our understanding of "online safety." It's more than just the two things adults fear most--cyberbullying and online predators. Online safety includes and encompasses the protection and management of one's online privacy. In addition to knowing how to prevent and report cyberbulling, kids must learn why personal data is collected so they can decide if they choose to share it. This is an essential digital life skill for young and old alike.

So as European states grapple with this issue, with the U.S. watching, I hope it calls attention to the dire need for education in digital literacy, digital citizenship, or whatever you choose to call it. Because if adults don't wisen up, someday these kids might decide to ban over-55 year olds from using the Internet because we're too lame to understand how to protect and manage our privacy. And that would be a shame.