Duty of Care: Children to give parents’ mobile numbers when signing on for social media

The process aims to restore parental control and prevent under-aged children lying in order to join Facebook, Instagram or other sites restricted to those over 13

Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Children will be asked for their parents’ mobile phone number when signing up to social media sites, under a Government-backed age verification process. 

The independent system, developed through a Government project with the tech industry, prevents children signing on to new social media or gaming sites without the parent confirming the child’s identity and age and satisfying themselves that the content is not “inappropriate” for their age. 

A child seeking to join a site sets a username and password and provides a parent’s phone number to the independent verification service.

The parent receives a phone notification, confirms the child’s age and identity, checks if the content is appropriate, and then clicks to accept or reject, all of which is encrypted to ensure confidentiality.

The process aims to restore parental control and prevent under-aged children lying in order to join Facebook, Instagram or other sites restricted to those over 13, as well as providing the social media platforms with an independent confidential verification of age.

It could also enable the tech firms to “band” children on the sites according to their age so they are restricted to content appropriate to their age and socialising with others of similar maturity.

A quarter of eight to 11-year-olds have a social media account despite nearly all the platforms claiming to restrict access to children aged 13 and over, according to the watchdog Ofcom.

Elizabeth Denham: "A generation from now we will all be astonished that there was ever a time when there wasn't specific regulation to protect kids online. This code makes clear that kids are not like adults online, and their data needs greater protections"

Credit: Paul Cooper

However, by next September, all social media sites will be expected to ensure children are not being exposed to material inappropriate to their age under a legally-enforced code policed by the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who has powers to issue six-figure fines for breaches.

The age checking system has been developed as part of the UK Government-funded Verification of Children Online (VoCO) programme to protect children from online harms and potential threats of abuse by adults.

The trials have involved TrustElevate, which developed the age verification system, BT, the music platform and app Trackd, cybersecurity company BlackDice, and various parents and children.

To confirm the identity of the child after receiving the notification that they want to join a site, the parent has to provide the child’s first and last name, and their date of birth.

These details are encrypted and checked instantaneously against authoritative data sources to ensure that they are the parent of the child and not (for example) a paedophile attempting to gain access by disguising themselves as a 13 year old.

The parent can then decide with a simple click whether they consent to their child to using the app or site or reject it, a decision that is then relayed back to the child’s screen on their computer or phone.

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Dr Rachel O’Connell, chief executive of TrustElevate, said: “The VoCO trials show we can accurately, privately and securely verify a child’s age online and obtain parental consent. This has the capacity to create a safer internet for children which maintains their freedom while protecting them from harm.”

The move comes as the Government will next month unveil its proposed duty of care laws requiring the social media firms to agree legally-binding terms and conditions which includes ensuring children are not exposed to material inappropriate to their age and protected from online harms.

The Age Appropriate Design Code, approved by Parliament earlier this year, requires platforms to have age verification in place by September 2021, of which the BT-TrustElevate scheme is one model.

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