What to do about Sunak’s silly plan to curb social media for under-16s? Highlight and delete

Rishi Sunak’s government says a lot and does very little. And the mooted plans to consult on a crackdown on social media access for teenagers in the new year is likely another example of that. We are told to expect a consultation in January that could limit access to social media for under-16s, up to and including outright bans on access to sites like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

Keen to be seen to be tough on issues that vex the electorate, Sunak can suggest a proposal and appear noble – without ever having to follow through on it.

But let’s take the government’s announcement at face value, and assume that it really is considering raising the age limit at which children can access social networks from 13 to 16. The backdrop is the government’s increasingly tough talk on big tech companies, and the rules through which the UK is trying to rein in the tech sector’s power. That’s exemplified through the Online Safety Act, a Frankenstein’s monster of legislation that sounds good until you scratch beneath the surface. The act received royal assent in October, and includes within its provisions a requirement that platforms “enforce age limits and use age-checking measures on platforms where content harmful to children is published”.

One thing the government couldn’t get into the Online Safety Act, despite trying, was an outright ban on the use of encryption in messaging platforms and social networks. Encryption is where the contents of messages are scrambled to prevent snooping by governments or individuals. It gives politicians significant cause for concern – especially given that the government is on a drive to defend children’s safety online in the face of vociferous campaigns.

Yet the government has continued to press the idea that encryption is only used by criminals and paedophiles, rather than by, for instance, political dissidents, the displaced fleeing persecution, or victims of abuse who seek contact with the outside world. Reporting of the planned crackdown comes after the government lambasted companies like Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, for going ahead with plans to introduce encryption across its messaging services. On Times Radio this week, Damian Hinds, the UK’s schools minister, said that the encryption debate was not about privacy, but the “ability to intercept and to ultimately investigate, bring to justice people who are engaging in child abuse”.

Linking encryption so closely to the protection of children suggests the plans to raise the minimum age at which users can access social networks is a response to companies’ defiance over encrypted messages. It seems as if the government is playing hardball with tech firms, aiming to look strong with the electorate.

But the idea that groomers can do whatever they want thanks to the shroud of encryption is false. On Instagram, Meta removed more than 107,000 pieces of content to prevent child endangerment between April and September this year. Other platforms do the same, and at similar levels.

Equally misguided is the idea that it’s possible to impose a blanket ban on 14- and 15-year-olds accessing social media. It’s as if those in charge of the legislation have never met a child, never mind had any. (Collectively, cabinet ministers have at least 43 children.)

Believing that it’s possible to prevent young people accessing social networks seems delusional at best, given that there are plenty of them under 13 who are already using the sites. It’s something that Michelle Donelan (the parent of one) knows about, because three months ago she became angry with social media platforms for not keeping under-13s off their apps and websites. It’s not exactly hard to subvert age checks. We have already had a generation shaped by the internet and social media, and they did not all become victims of trafficking and abuse, nor have they been shaped into broken, browbeaten husks of humanity.

Quite apart from the fact that the broadside against teenagers appears to be little more than an attempt to attract the interest of the Daily Mail, it also ignores just how important and integral social media – and interactions online with peers – are for users now.

It can be easy to fixate on the negatives, which undoubtedly exist. Fourteen-year-old Molly Russell took her life in 2017 after viewing content related to depression, self-harm and suicide on social media. Her story, and others like hers, cannot be ignored. Yet the Molly Rose Foundation – set up in her memory – has reservations about a ban, saying: “The emphasis should firmly be on strengthening the regulator’s hand to ensure platforms are no longer awash with a set of avoidable dangers.”

And there are positives to being on social media. Today’s 14- and 15-year-olds had to navigate the transition from primary to secondary school during enforced lockdowns due to the pandemic. For them, social media was the only place they could interact for months. It provides them with important social skills, the ability to explore their identity and an opportunity to learn about the world.

To take that from them risks pushing teenagers further into the online shadows, a paradoxical result, given the government’s fixation on the supposed evils of encryption, or means that they’ll opt out altogether, and enter the online world at 16 more naive and prey to the same evil forces – but without any of the protection gained from experience.

Title: What to do about Sunak’s silly plan to curb social media for under-16s? Highlight and delete
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/16/rishi-sunak-social-media-encryption-teenager-ban
Source: the Guardian
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Date: December 16, 2023 at 09:32AM
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