Study finds Irish children are 'easily' able to bypass online age restrictions

Written on 01/28/2021
Ciarán Mather

A new study has found that many Irish children are easily able to bypass restrictions on numerous social media apps simply by lying about how old they are.

The study, which was conducted by the Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre, found that many children have no issue getting around age verification measures on a variety of social media apps, which included: Houseparty, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Skype, Messenger, Viber, Discord and WhatsApp.

It found that all ten apps permitted users, regardless of age, to set up accounts if they first gave their age as 16.

Lero’s lead researcher Dr Liliana Pasquale said that this could lead to children being exposed to privacy and safety threats such as cyberbullying, online grooming from predators, or exposure to content that may be inappropriate for their age.

She explained: 'Our study found that some apps disabled registration if users input ages below 13, but if the age 16 is provided as [an] input initially, then none of the apps requires proof of age.'

Currently, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires children below the age of digital consent (13-16) to have verifiable parental consent for the processing of their data.

EU members are able to set their own digital age of consent - in the context of Ireland, it is 16, while in Sweden it is set at a more liberal limit of 13 years of age.

Following the study, the study's authors outlined a number of recommendations to get around this dilemma.

These include introducing robust age verification mechanisms, encouraging users not to lie about their age when setting up an account, enabling the most restrictive privacy settings, and clarifying the minimum age and treatment of data.

Dr. Pasquale added: 'Providing mechanisms that deter a user from installing an app on a device on which they have previously declared themselves to be underage is currently one of the most sensible solutions not to incentivise users to lie about their age.'

Unfortunately, children being able to bypass age restrictions is nothing new: in 2016, a survey conducted by CBBC Newsround to commemorate Safer Internet Day found that more than three-quarters of children aged 10 to 12 in the UK have social media accounts, even though they are below the age limit.

In any case, the study further makes it clear that more must be done in order to ensure the safety and preserve the mental health of our nation's children.

For more information about staying safe online, click here.