A youthful folly

I recently attended an event hosted by the Anti-Bullying Alliance in the Speaker’s House, House of Commons Westminster and thanks to Martha Evans of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, our CEO Sharon Pursey had the honour of giving one of the keynote speeches, which you can watch here.

One of the other speakers was Baroness Harding of Winscombe, formerly CEO of telecoms company TalkTalk. As I’ve spent many years in telecoms, I’d always been impressed by Dido so it was great to spend some time talking to her, and understanding her views on the topic close to our hearts – cyber-bullying.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe

One of the issues that we discussed was age verification. Most social networks have a minimum age of 13, but from the NSPPC’s research, we know that a surprisingly and worryingly high proportion (23%) of 8 to 11 year olds have at least one social media account.

The reason this gives cause for concern is the incidence of cyber-abuse, which includes cyber-bullying and sextortion, for which such young people are not developmentally prepared (and no one should be subjected to anyway). Research company IPSOS reports that globally 1 in 5 parents say their child has been cyberbullied, and the NSPCC say that 24% of young people have experienced an adult they don’t know trying to contact them online.

The logical response to this is to ensure, to insist, legislate even, that social media companies provide an age verification system for their users. The question is, how?

I’m not convinced this is workable, but let’s explore some ideas.

The UK government wants to implement age verification for legitimate pornography vendors’ websites. By the end of 2018, the Digital Economy Act means that all commercial porn sites will have to find a way to “effectively verify” that their users in the UK are over 18 years old, and they will have to block everyone else.

Whether you feel this is worthy, futile or the start of the slippery slope to full internet censorship, it doesn’t impact our 8 year old on, for example, Facebook as social media sites, or sites where less than a third of the content is porn, and where access is provided for free, are excluded from this requirement. Yet is it these sites where predators lurk.

Even if this legislation did cover social media sites, the age verification system proposed by Mindgeek (AgeID) uses metrics such as credit card details, passport details and driving licence details, none of which applies to the average 8 year old.

One could argue that if you can’t produce these details, then you’re not old enough to be on social media sites. But in the UK you need to be 16 to get a passport, which costs £75, so the poorest people probably couldn’t afford one and they would be disenfranchised from social media.

In the UK, you need to be 18 to drive a car, and a driving license photo ID card is the closest thing we have to a generic ID card such as they have in, say France.

Under 18s generally can’t have a credit card but they could have a debit card, if they are able to also have a bank account. And children are used to restrictions on what they are able to buy:

  • Over 12s – videos, DVDs and computer games (12 certificate)
  • Over 15s – videos, DVDs and computer games (15 certificate)
  • Over 16s – paint containers, certain fireworks (for example caps, cracker snaps, novelty matches, party poppers, throw downs), lottery tickets and scratch cards, football pools, liqueur chocolates


Some proof of age may be asked by the retail establishment – it would be an offence for them to sell inappropriate products to the wrong age.

But even a card-based system is easy enough to circumvent – nicking a sibling’s card, for example.

During the discussion next to the State Bed (who knew?) it was mooted that the likes of Facebook know your age, even if you type in a false one. They can deduce this by using smart software to analyse your actions and words you use on their site. OK, so this may not be able to tell the difference between a 55 year old and a 45 year old, but it may be smart enough to tell the difference between an 18 year old and a 13 year old.

The State Bed

But I doubt it. The reason I doubt it is my account. Some time ago, possibly triggered by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I changed my sex on Facebook to female. Few people noticed, but Facebook did and I see adverts clearly intended for a feminine audience, such as for Tampax and the like.

So is their software that smart?

In any case, even if it was smart enough to figure this out, this doesn’t stop young people from opening an account. For algorithms to estimate the age of someone from their online behaviour takes time, and for all that time the young person is at risk.

What do other countries do? A few years ago in Germany, Article 4 on the Inter-state Agreement on Youth Protection in the Media, the Jugendmedienschutz-Staatsvertragor JMStV for short. This brought into law two conditions indent verification conditions: firstly, the user’s age must be checked in person (face-to-face) and secondly, there must be some form of authentication process each time access is required in order to prevent access data from being passed on to minors.

The first of these requires people that want to watch porn to submit to a one-off age verification by the post office staff, using their ID card. The second of these requires that the user, each time they want to watch porn, uses their own software and hardware (ID-chip) and a PIN.

A somewhat tedious and perhaps over the top response in respect of social media sites.

Or is it?

What do you think?

Comments welcome.



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