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WhatsApp imposes new age limit of 16: will it actually work?

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WhatsApp is limiting its usage to people aged 16 or above in Europe. In compliance with new data privacy policies that will come into force next month, the service, owned by Facebook, will ask users to confirm their age before creating an account.

For now, users must be at least 13 years old to sign in, and this rule will still apply to most online platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat. Due to new EU data privacy regulations, WhatsApp, which does not ask new users for their age at the moment, was forced to make age restrictions and adopt more transparent policies. There will also be, for instance, an option to download a file with the private data that this service holds, including contacts, groups or blocked numbers. This measure, contrary to the age restriction one, isn’t just limited to Europe.

According to a recent study, WhatsApp is the most popular messenger app in the world, with over 1.5 billion monthly users, followed by Facebook Messenger and WeChat. Its unmeasurable power holds this platform accountable for safety issues as well as private data usage, especially when online platforms are being increasingly scrutinised due to the rise of under-age, supposedly illegal profiles.

Just recently, Ofcom came up with a report showing that one third of all UK 12 to 15-year-olds are WhatsApp users, which goes against its current age limit of 13. To make matters worse, eight in ten parents are unaware of their children’s activity on social media. The lack of regulations has caused many concerns on whether and how these children’s information is protected.

Facebook has, according to a spokesperson for the company, reinforced the pre-teen ban and it is now removing accounts once they become aware that one’s age used to sign in is fake. It has also launched Messenger Kids last December, specifically designed for children as young as 6, with an add-free policy.

These age restrictions and new regulations are undeniably positive. After all, if the legal age is 18, that should mean something. 12-year-olds, or perhaps even younger children, do not have the knowledge and experience to understand how these services work, and therefore should have restricted access to them. It is as clear as water, and it is quite surprising how that hasn’t been thought of before.

Besides the new age limits, data privacy on WhatsApp and any other social media platform is still a determining issue that concerns most users and asks for more regulation as well. It would not bother me that major online platforms like Facebook, which has been more controversial than WhatsApp regarding safety and private data recently, uses our public information to adapt advertisements according to our preferences.

What does bother me is how private information is being used, because it should be exactly that - private. Browsing history, photos, text messages, videos, anything that we share in chats or have on our computers - we, as users, have the right to know if and specifically how that information is being used. And, the truth is, we were kept ignorant until now.

WhatsApp might seem harmless and people might tend to think that they share more information and personal data on Facebook, but it surely isn’t. In fact, it was ranked worst for users’ data privacy in a 2015 report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and nothing much has changed.

Concerns on how the government can take control of our information are part of the privacy issues that recently brought up constant debates and new laws, hopefully more effective than the current ones. The age restrictions, however, might not be as effective as they want - future users only have to confirm their age by ticking a box, and no verification is required. I want to believe that there is more to this new regulation and that WhatsApp isn’t just hoping that children and teenagers will be honest with their answers because, let’s face it, they will all most likely lie.

Imposing age limits is crucial, but there is more to be done. Users must be aware of what is truly happening in the system, who is accessing our information, where is it going, how has it been used. We simply need to know. A “tick the box if” kind of regulation might be the beginning and it shows, at least, that society knows the meaning of democracy, freedom and rights. But the reality is that it just might not be enough. 




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