After legislating minors’ access to pornographic content on the web, French MPs are continuing their offensive by passing a series of provisions aimed at protecting children using the internet.
In 2022, a law was passed to protect children online. It provided for the introduction of parental controls by default on digital devices sold in France, and called for the implementation of an age verification system for accessing pornographic sites.
Much discussion ensued in order to make this age control effective. A so-called ‘double anonymity’ system is currently being tested to ensure both the protection of minorsIt works by using a third-party site to check the identity documents of the person wishing to connect to the target site, and passing on the information to the site without disclosing the full identity of the applicant. Despite the technical adjustments still to be made, “France will soon be the first country in the world to generalise parental control by default on all devices sold on its territory,” said Minister for the Digital Transition Jean-Noël Barrot.
On Tuesday, February 28th, MPs began examining another proposed law that reinforces the previous provisions, proposed by MP Laurent Marcangeli of the Horizons party, which is close to the government majority. This proposed law is the result of a growing awareness on the part of the political class of the public health disaster represented by the overexposure of children to screens and the Internet. The dangers of exposure to the Internet and social networks for young people have already been identified: screen addiction; sleep problems; mood and anxiety disorders; risk of depression that can lead to suicide—not to mention the risks of exposure to pornographic content, or the explosion of cyber-bullying in all its forms.
According to a survey by the French National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties (CNIL) in 2021, the average age of first registration on a social network is around 8.5 years and more than half of children aged 10 to 14 are present on these platforms, even though these networks are theoretically forbidden to them. This sad fact is accompanied by a generalised parental resignation. Parents do little or nothing to supervise their children’s online activities. Barely more than 50% of parents decide when and how long their children are online and 80% say they do not know exactly what their children are doing online, according to the website vie-publique.fr.
The French state has therefore decided to take over by legislating.
The law, which was adopted on Thursday, March 2nd, requires social networks to refuse to allow minors under the age of 15 to register on their platforms. They will have to obtain parental authorisation to do so, which means that the networks will have to put in place technical solutions to comply with the law. The Audiovisual and Digital Communication Regulatory Authority (Arcom) will be responsible for certifying these technical solutions, and in the event of non-compliance, the social network may be fined up to 1% of its global profit.
The text thus sets in stone a ‘digital majority’ fixed at the age of 15. However, the concept of digital majority is not new: it appeared in French law in 2018 in the application of European legislation, which allowed it to be set between 13 and 16 years of age. From now on, the age of 15 will be the reference point. Parents will be able to ask social networks to delete their child’s account if he is under 15 years old. The networks are also required to disseminate prevention messages against harassment: French opinion has indeed been shaken in recent months by cases of harassment of teenagers who have been driven to suicide, with social networks playing a central role, which explains the emphasis placed on this provision.
Finally, during the same series of debates, another draft law will be brought to the attention of the deputies, which provides for the supervision of children’s image rights online, particularly in view of the tendency of some parents to post multiple photos of their children on social networks without discernment. It is estimated that, on average, a child appears in 1,300 photographs published online before the age of 13, on his own accounts and those of his parents or relatives, according to the British study, “Who knows what about me?” published in 2018, quoted by the draft of the bill.
A third and final piece of legislation submitted by a Macronist MP, Caroline Janvier, will also be examined by parliament. It is intended to prevent excessive exposure of children to screens. The bill would include a paragraph in the French public health code on the risks of using screens and would add recommendations on the use of screens for both mothers and young children to the official information given to pregnant women during their pregnancy. Paediatricians, ophthalmologists, neurologists, and teachers have been warning public authorities for many years about the damage caused by overexposure to screens. They finally seem to have been heard.
The government welcomed the vote on the digital majority, which was overwhelmingly supported by all MEPs present, regardless of their political affiliation—82 votes for and only 2 against. It said that it would continue to support all additional initiatives that would be added to the first steps of an ambitious child protection plan, for which there is no equivalent abroad.
However, the consensus that exists among French politicians is undercut by the omnipresence of digital technology in classrooms. A digital plan has been deployed in French schools since 2015 and has pushed teachers and families to introduce the use of screens in the classroom at an ever earlier age, to the detriment of traditional learning tools, thereby creating technological dependence among children.