Kids can easily bypass age restrictions on social media platforms, study warns

CASTLETROY, Ireland — Social media has never felt more like the wild west. Misinformation as well as general negativity are literally unavoidable on most platforms today, despite continual efforts to better police content. With this in mind, it’s never been more important to ensure young children stay off social media until they reach a reasonably appropriate age. Unfortunately, a new study finds kids can easily just lie to bypass age restrictions guarding social media accounts.

Researchers from Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, name close to all major social media platforms as severely lacking in proper age verification protocols. This list includes Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, TikTok, Messenger, Skype, and Discord.

Researchers examined age verification processes across all of those platforms on two occasions; once in April 2019 and then again in April 2020. That investigation led them to conclude that all kids need to do to open an account on those platforms is say they are at least 16 without providing any proof. Essentially, these platforms are working off of the honor system which isn’t exactly ideal.

“This results in children being exposed to privacy and safety threats such as cyberbullying, online grooming, or exposure to content that may be inappropriate for their age,” comments lead researcher Dr. Liliana Pasquale, assistant professor at University College Dublin’s School of Computer Science, in a media release.

How young is too young for social media?

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which went into effect in the United States in 2000, is responsible for the general rule that 13 years-old is the minimum age for accessing anything on social media. Meanwhile, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) dictates that all children younger than 13 to 16 years-old gain verifiable parental consent for the processing of their data on social media platforms. The exact “age of digital consent” varies a bit across Europe. For example, in Ireland, France, and Germany the age is 16. In the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden however, the age is 13.

“Our study found that while some apps disabled registration if users input ages below 13, but if the age 16 is provided as input initially then none of the apps require a proof of age. 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 incentivize users to lie about their age,” Dr. Pasquale explains.

Kids still find a way around internet roadblocks

Study authors also researched new ways to enact more comprehensive and effective age restrictions for social media. Surprisingly, though, they found that kids are quite capable of bypassing even these stricter rules. For example, if speech recognition were a requirement to verify one’s age before opening a social media account, kids could just play a recording of someone else’s voice.

“In reality, the application of substantial financial penalties was the main trigger for app providers to implement more effective age verification mechanisms. Based on our study and on our survey of biometrics-based age recognition techniques, we propose a number of recommendations to app providers and developers,” Dr. Pasquale adds.

Researchers also have a few other suggestions for social media platforms intended to ensure more transparent and safe social media use among young people. First of all, any social media platform’s minimum age requirements and data use policies should be upfront and unavoidable when initially signing up. Also, every new user under the age of 18 should automatically have their privacy settings placed on the strictest level.

The study is published in IEEE Software.

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