Age verification on social media, but not porn?

Age verification on social media, but not porn?

The Australian Federal Government has announced that it is moving to introduce a bill to enact an Online Privacy code.

Aimed at social media companies, the bill would significantly restrict platforms from collecting and selling children’s data, requiring parental consent from users under 16, forcing platforms to take “all reasonable steps to verify” a user’s age, and put the “best interests of the child” at the centre of all decisions”.

As we reported recently, social media impacts on young people, particularly young women and teenage girls, can be devastating. And while social media companies like Facebook are aware of the issue, they remain unwilling to act in the best interest of their young users.

For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 per cent of British users and 6 per cent of American users, traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.

While the bill is certainly a welcome attempt to minimise the impact of social media on children, Dr Rys Farthing, data policy director at tech policy think tank, Reset Australia, said that the bill in its current form certainly has some holes.

Unless you’ve got 2.5 million users [or more], you won’t fall under the code. There’s only 2.9 million under 18-year-olds in Australia.

You could have 85 per cent of Australia’s kids all downloading some really hectic app, and it wouldn’t be covered by the code.

None of this will apply to edtech. And actually, that’s a huge part of kids’ lives. A lot of games that are targeted at children [also] won’t be counted because the requirements are [primarily] for social media platforms.

Some groups have voiced concerns about potential increased privacy infringements, Dr Farthing says that major privacy infringements are “unlikely” because of the various ‘age estimation techniques’ that social media companies can use.

Which begs the question, if social media platforms are able to verify age so easily, why are the same tools not being used to protect children from online pornography?

In June the Federal Government committed to regulate unlimited access to pornography by minors through age-verification laws. However, the timeline for implementation is still vague.

Andrew Wallace MP, Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, noted the devastating impact porn is having on young people with the average age of first exposure being between eight and nine years old.

While moves to combat issues with social media are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to prioritise age verification for internet pornography. Age verification laws, in keeping with the proposed Online Privacy code, need to be fast-tracked to protect young Australians from accidental or deliberate exposure to these materials.

Restricting minors’ pornographic access will help combat the rise in family, domestic and sexual violence, which as Mr Wallace points out, is being “exacerbated by the explosion of hard-core violent porn, particularly as it is being accessed by young people”.

To protect all young Australians, especially women and girls, age verification on pornographic websites must be an urgent priority for the Federal government.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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