Begging-the-question, conjecture, anecdote, false equivalence, and a non sequitur: those five reasons for raising the Digital Age of Consent

Cormac Ryan has been tweeting about the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and their letter to the government on the Digital Age of Consent.

Cormac is right. The letter really is absurd.

The RCPI Faculty of Paediatrics wants the Digital Age of Consent to be 16 years, but the government want it to be 13 years. So on the face of it we have a dispute.

On one side we have trained medical professionals who specialize in children’s health and well-being. On the other side are a bunch of bean-counters, bureaucrats, and gombeen-politicians looking for a quick-fix won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children solution to the latest moral panic.

It’s a mismatch, right? How can the medics lose this argument?

Well…here’s how.

 

The RCPI offer five reasons “to support the digital age of consent being set at the higher limit of 16 years”. Five reasons sounds like a lot of reasons.

Here, in turn, are each of them:

1. Child Protection: Paediatricians in Ireland, particularly those specialising in child protection and child sexual abuse, are concerned about the recent reports of children being groomed on line increasing the risk of child sexual abuse.

Translation: Hmmm. The RCPI’s first “reason” seems to simply be that “paediatricians are concerned”. This reason itself requires a reason. Why are they concerned?

In other words, this reason is not actually a reason at all.

2. Comprehension of risks: It is recognised in the GDPR that children and teenagers merit special protection regarding their personal data; a child may lack comprehension of the significant risks and consequences of sharing personal data, including photographs. Similarly, children may not have the judgement/maturity to understand the consequences of inappropriate disclosure of feelings and personal thoughts on the internet. This behaviour may lead to significant feelings of regret, worry and anxiety.

Translation: Children “may” lack comprehension. Children “may” not be able to understand. This “may” lead to anxiety. Or…drum roll…maybe not.

Note that there is no mention here of evidence that might augment this string of maybes, just some hand-waving about “it” being “recognised”. “It” is simply conjecture. The “recogniser” remains anonymous.

Again, this reason is not a reason.

3. Mental health and wellbeing: Concern is rising as evidence is emerging of the negative impact that the use of electronic devices may be having on the mental health of children and young people. Teachers, GPs, paediatricians and psychiatrists are seeing children presenting in increasing numbers with anxiety, sleep deprivation, mood disturbances reported to be related to social media use. There is now much anecdotal evidence that on-line bullying may have a role in self-harming and suicide in our young people.

 

Translation: Here the RCPI tell us that there is “evidence” that electronic devices “may” (again with the maybes) be bad. And what is this evidence, we might ask?

Well, we are told that the evidence comes from “teachers, GPs, paediatricians, and psychiatrists”. That sounds a lot like anecdotal evidence.

The RCPI are not shy to own up. They indeed agree that this evidence, so-called, is in fact “anecdotal”. But they seem to think this is a good thing, because there is “much” of it.

On the basis that I can provide you with (“much”) anecdotal evidence that the Loch Ness Monster exists, I must point out that “anecdotal” evidence is not really evidence at all. The mere concept of “anecdotal evidence” is an oxymoron, utterly unscientific, and a poor camouflage for incoherence.

Once again, therefore, this reason is not a reason.

4. Medical age of consent: Sixteen years is in line with the minimum age at which a child may consent to medical treatment.

Translation: Here the RCPI assert that the digital age of consent should be the same as the age of consent for medical treatment. But — and surely this is obvious — surfing the web or maintaining a social media account is not medical treatment. Why should the age of consent be the same?

The age of consent for sex in Ireland is 17. The ‘age of consent’ for smoking (although it is not really called that) is 18. The minimum age for standing for parliament is 21. The minimum age to run for president is 35.

You can legally start working a full-time job at 14. The legal age at which you can steer a boat is 13. The age at which you can be charged with murder (or rape) is 10. There is no legal minimum age for getting a body piercing or a tattoo.

Why should the Digital Age of Consent be higher than the age at which the state allows you to have a full-time job, to be charged with serious crime, or to get your nipples pierced?

Or why should you be considered too young to watch Peppa Pig on YouTube, but old enough to have an image of Peppa Pig tattooed across your buttocks?

The answer of course is that there is no logic here. It is simply arbitrary of the RCPI to link one age of consent with another. It is a selective rationale designed to corroborate a subjective point of view.

In other words, once more, this reason is not a reason.

5. Supporting Parents: Parents need to be supported in their efforts to educate, guide and monitor their children’s use of the internet and setting the age at 16 will affirm parents in their role and the need to assess their own child’s maturity and judgement.

Translation: This is possibly the most incoherent of all the reasons put forward in the RCPI letter. It effectively equates to the following — “The Digital Age of Consent should be 16 because, er, this will help parents“. But why exactly is this the case? Why would 16 help parents more than 13, or 18, or 10, or 21?

Yet again, THIS REASON IS NOT A REASON!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sum total of what the RCPI have to offer. That’s the lot. Five so-called reasons for raising the Digital Age of Consent — begging-the-question, conjecture, anecdote, false equivalence, and a non sequitur.

We might expect such a milieu of nonsense from a group of Luddites, or anti-vaxxers, or all-round anti-tech hystericals, and for sure there is always plenty of specious stuff submitted to government on this and many other issues when open calls are made.

But this is the Royal College of Physicians, for goodness sake. I thought these folks were supposed to be empirical scientists. Something very weird is happening here.

Won’t somebody please get these people a tablet…

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