Social media age restrictions may push children online in secret, Australian eSafety commissioner says

<span>Australia’s eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant.</span><span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Australia’s eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant.Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Restricting children from social media could risk limiting their access to critical social support and could result in them accessing social media in secret, Australia’s online safety regulator has warned.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, this month said the Coalition would ban under 16s from social media within 100 days should they win the next election. The Albanese government is undertaking a $6.5m trial of age assurance technology and is assessing at what age children should be able to access social media as part of a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry on social media and Australian society.

In its submission to the inquiry, the eSafety commissioner’s office said that while 45% of young people aged 14 to 17 reported being treated in a hurtful or nasty way online, and social media can have acute risks to children such as online grooming and sexual extortion, discussion about the risks of social media needed to be balanced with discussion of the benefits.

“Social media may also provide a range of opportunities that are protective of mental health, such as inclusion, social connection and belonging,” the commissioner said.

The discussion about preventing children from accessing social media through age verification “implies social media is a discrete form of media that can be separated from the rest of the internet and modern media”.

“Even if social media could be demarcated and separated from other media, a primary concern is that children would migrate to other services and platforms with fewer safeguards.”

The eSafety commissioner said restricting young people from social media “may limit young people’s access to critical support” and some would probably work around the blocks.

Related: ‘No country in the world has solved this problem’: can Australia make age verification work for social media?

“If age-based restrictions are imposed, eSafety has concerns that some young people will access social media in secrecy. This may mean that they access social media without adequate protections in place and are more likely to use less regulated non-mainstream services that increase their likelihood of exposure to serious risks.”

Banning children of a certain age would also not help children build capacity to engage safely online, and should not be considered the sole solution, eSafety said.

The Coalition has not outlined how age checks for social media would work in practice, and eSafety said in the submission that age assurance is “not a panacea for online harms” and education and awareness-raising activities must also be included.

Guardian Australia reported last week that the UK regulator – which is now rolling out age assurance measures for over 18s – warned that facial recognition technology for age assurance does not work well on younger teens.

The eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, told the committee in a hearing on Friday that the technology had improved in “leaps and bounds” in the past few years but it would depend on how the technology would be designed and deployed as to whether it would be successful.

The committee is scheduled hold two hearings this week, and one next week.