TURIN — In Brussels, it doesn't matter if your 8-year-olds have a smartphone in their pockets with more computing power than the Rosetta space probe. The European Union passed a regulation this month that raised the legal age for the use of social media to 16, requiring parental consent before teenagers can open Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and email accounts.
The Byzantine nature of Brussels, and the need to make every member-nation happy, means the new privacy reforms allow different countries to establish different domestic ages. Poland, for one, had pushed for an even higher legal age.
And yet, in establishing regulations that require explicit parental consent, the EU again shows just how far removed it is from the daily lives of its citizens: 70% of European 13-year-olds are already on Facebook. A recent poll revealed that the average age of people signing up for the first time is even lower, at 12. But when politicians think they can change the world with a flurry of new laws, nothing can stop them.
In an age where kids spend more time on the Internet than outside the home, the real question for families across the continent is how do we turn our children into good digital citizens.
Teenagers today exchange homework on Facebook messenger, organize their free time on WhatsApp, comment on photos and Christmas presents on Instagram and Pinterest, share on Snapchat and Tumblr, and challenge far-flung rival players across the globe on video game consoles. Don't recognize some of these strange names? Well, that's the point.
My father walked me to my first day of primary school, showing me which traffic light crossing I should take, so I would know how to go on my own from then on. Today, parents are struggling to do the equivalent for the digital lives of their children. They see dangers everywhere, in part because it can all seem so unfamiliar, and end up arbitrarily setting limits on their kids' use of a smartphone they may have just given them as a present.
Too often, we end up forgetting a fundamental principle of parenting: giving responsibility is the best way to ensure maturity. We must follow our children along their digital paths. We need to sit by their side and discover how to change privacy settings and make sure that photos and comments remain accessible only to others their age. We should teach them to think twice before clicking “publish,” and tell them that behind their screens lie real people that deserve just as much respect as they do in the real world.
The Internet is a web of webs, at once local and global, something which is not often understood by today's teens. They believe they are sheltered, only talking to their friends, mindless of the fact that their thoughts and posts will remain online forever.
Article 2 of the Italian Parliament's “Declaration of Internet Rights” states that “access to Internet is a fundamental personal right and required for full individual and societal development.”
Danah Boyd, a renowned scholar of teenagers' use of social networks, disagrees with the EU's push for “a regime of norms that produce age-based restrictions.” Instead, she says we must all take a step back and help our children become “responsible digital citizens,” and begin a public conversation on how to parent in the digital age.
Looking for a good place to start? This evening, when your kids come home from school, try asking them: “How was Facebook today?”