A few recent headlines that have cropped up on multiple news sites are blaring headlines that seem to suggest that Europe is considering banning teens from the internet, except that's not what's happening at all, and the situation is a lot less sensational and more complicated than they suggest.
"A New Law Could Ban a Majority of European Teens From Social Media" says Jezebel. "Europe Could Ban Most Teens From Social Media - And That Scares The Sh-t Out Of Me" screams MTV. "Europe Could Kick Majority of Teens Off Social Media, and That Would Be Tragic" laments the Huffington Post.
First things first, it is important to know that there is already a similar restriction in place. What the law, which is a change to the European Data Protection Regulation, actually does is raise the age at which teens can access social media without permission from their parents from 13 to 16. The change in regulation is not a "ban" so much as it is an increase in a current restriction. The purpose of the law is, like most regulations of this sort, protection, in this case for teens from things like cyberbullying and online predators. The new restriction is expected to be signed into law tomorrow.
Don't get me wrong. The raising of the age of unfettered social media access is an issue of serious concern, and a the new regulation is a change I strongly disagree with. As Janice Richardson, expert to ITU and the Council of Europe, former coordinator of European Safer Internet network, Luxembourg points out in a post on Medium, the restriction would make it difficult for a large number of teens to access services and information that would help them navigate the most turbulent years of someone's life.
Among other issues Richardson brings up: The need for teens who are at risk to access professional help, such as those suffering from abuse, living with those who are abusing drugs or alcohol, or those that need LGBT information or support. The new law contains an exception for direct access to counseling and support services, but contains no exception for peer-to-peer support. In other words, someone under 16 can contact a professional counselor on social media about a problem, but they can't talk to their friends about it.
Another unintended yet more dangerous problem the law creates, as Richardson observes, is that it incentivizes kids to lie about their age. It seems odd that regulators don't know this already, but kids have always found ways to work around restrictions to what they view online. There's a reason that "Enter Your Date of Birth" and "Are You Over 18" barriers on websites have always been a joke. This incentive will make it harder to reach kids with appropriate materials and guidelines about what they access online.
This new regulation is less a horrible tragedy, as the clicky headlines would suggest, than it is just kinda dumb. The regulation probably won't keep young teens from social media, and won't protect them the way regulators intend. It will do more harm than good, which is more than enough reason not to enact a new regulation. The European Union should leave things as they are. And headline writers should learn to exercise some restraint.