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If a 10-year-old walked into a bar and took a seat next to you, it wouldn’t just be the beginning of a bad joke. It would be an inappropriate, unhealthy and potentially dangerous place for a child.
In a real-world context, it’s obvious when a child is somewhere they shouldn’t be. However, it is difficult to know where exactly kids are in the digital realm. And over the past two years, the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the shift of children‘s academic and social lives online.
Unfortunately, there’s a real lack of stringent age-verification and identity-proving measures online. With an absence of protection comes potentially serious implications for children’s digital safety, including easier access to preferred victims for human traffickers and other sexual predators.
With so much of our lives, business and entertainment conducted in the digital world, this is an issue that no one wants to be on the wrong side of. If we’re going to let young people into the high-stakes digital arena, we need to step up our game when it comes to age verification.
The scope of the problem
While the landscape is slowly changing, much of the internet makes age verification too simple. If you’ve ever checked a box online verifying that you’re over 18, you know how easy it is to self-identify as any age you wish. This checkbox is an open door for teens and adolescents to view adult content, purchase age-restricted substances and even post inappropriate or illegal content. A handful of years ago, preventing minors from purchasing age-restricted products was accomplished face-to-face and with a much smaller margin of error than in the digital world. Many 16- and 17-year-olds can pass for 18, but your average 10-year-old cannot.
The explosive growth of social media by minors created a perfect storm for age-verification issues. Most social media apps require kids to be 13 before they can access the platform without an adult’s supervision, but there aren’t many failsafes to guarantee that’s the reality. Forty-five percent of kids ages 9-12 say they use Facebook daily, according to a recent study by Thorn. In addition, other recent studies have articulated the tactics traffickers use to identify, contact and groom vulnerable youths, with the ultimate aim of exploitation. These tactics are facilitated by growing adoption of technology, especially social media.
A future of solutions
Advancing regulations are an important step that can encourage companies to take this issue seriously. Many countries, particularly in Europe, have already taken steps to help protect children online. France has passed age-verification regulations to ensure minors do not get access to websites with age-restricted content and also passed regulations to protect young people’s online images. In the UK, violations of the newly implemented age-appropriate design code can lead to fines of up to 4% of a company’s annual global turnover.
However, the problem is too vast for governments to tackle alone. Businesses that operate online have an ethical obligation to protect kids, and they can do it relatively easily with low friction and high confidence by utilizing a variety of new technologies.
In a digital world, technology will be a key strategy to check the age of internet users. Facial biometrics can be particularly helpful in these pursuits, as requiring facial authentication can both keep kids from accessing inappropriate sites through age verification and help curb criminal activity on the site through identity verification.
Tech’s answer to the question
Potential technology solutions are staring us right in the face. The process of requiring users to take a selfie or picture of their government-issued ID is one way to resolve the authentication problem. ID documents can be validated for authenticity and help determine a person’s age. Requiring a government-issued ID during account creation allows companies to verify date of birth while also creating a baseline for future user authentication when combined with a selfie.
Selfies can be matched back to existing photos or ID documents to validate that the person in possession of the ID is the correct individual. Additionally, using just a simple selfie, facial recognition technology can estimate the age of a person with a high degree of confidence. As an added degree of certainty, current technology can also detect whether the selfie came from a living person via liveness detection. Individually or in combination, IDs and selfies can be required to identify fakes and underage users while allowing detailed underwriting to ensure compliance with new regulations.
Other technologies can offer greater reassurance that users are not underage. Companies can use ongoing MFA (multi-factor authentication) to prevent age-restrictive purchases or uploading or accessing restricted content. For example, biometrics like facial authentication can be used as both login and at point of sale. This new slate of technologies will help provide better safeguards for children online.
The stakes are high for this issue. Many organizations, including the All for Humanity Alliance, are working hard to raise awareness and to develop solutions for both businesses and the average person who witnesses something they’re uncomfortable with. The threats of luring and unsafe behaviors online continue to accelerate, but often, these issues occur away from the eyes of adults who can assist.
This is where technology has real value. Age verification is the first frame of the storyboard that helps us protect our children from potentially dangerous people, content and products. With technology, we’ll simplify the process of offering children a safer internet experience while allowing for the adaptability and flexibility to meet new threats, tactics, regulations and challenges as they arise in a digital future.
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