Age assurance refers to a range of measures which allow organisations to prevent children from accessing services which are inappropriate for their age. It is also used to tailor services to suit children’s developmental needs.
The Office of Communications (Ofcom), which regulates broadcasting and telecommunication activities, and the ICO have a mutual interest in ensuring that data protection legislation and wider online safety objectives are coordinated in this important area.
They have jointly commissioned research “to explore the attitudes of children and parents/carers to age assurance methods and where they see the balance of trade-offs between considerations such as ease of use, privacy, and online safety.”
While parents have always wrestled with the conflicting demands of their children regards greater autonomy, and their own desire to protect their families, the issue has been brought into focus online.
The report talked to families about their opinions and experiences of age assurance and set out to examine three key questions:
- What do families think about the concept of age assurance?
Most parents felt that the services which have been associated with age restrictions traditionally offline – alcohol, gambling, and pornography, for instance, still needed robust safeguarding measures. However, when focusing onto online services, they felt that a child’s numerical age needed to be balanced against their maturity and the perceived risk from a specific online platform.
- What do families think about different age assurance methods?
The participants were introduced to seven different methods for age assurance. For traditionally age restricted activities, hard identifiers like passports or driving licences were preferred, although the amount of effort required to use these in practice was highlighted as a concern. With online social media, parental confirmation was seen as the best option.
- How do families currently approach parental controls and monitoring?
These ranged from direct supervision to simply maintaining good communication with their children over the risks and issues. With older children, parental motivation to restrict online activities reduced in proportion to the child’s ability to evade restrictions.
The key issue in all cases was the sophistication of children to thwart attempts to control access to online platforms. Giving false information when asked to declare their age was found to be common, sometimes with parental knowledge. Children also used VPNs or gained access to Wi-Fi or other settings to avoid parental controls.
The report concludes: “An underlying paradox in this research was that researchers were asking parents to consider how they might use age assurance methods to best effect, whilst at the same time acknowledging that currently, their prevailing attitude was not to enforce them, or indeed to encourage their children to circumvent them.”
The debate that this research document is intended to start will in time reshape policy towards online access and data privacy for young people.
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NB: The research involved speaking to parents and children individually, as well as in focus groups and you can read the full research document here.