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As the debate continues to rage over recent social media bans for those under age 14, one question looms large: how do we protect youth online while preserving their access to vital digital spaces?

It’s an issue teetering between two harsh realities — the well-documented mental health risks of unbridled social media usage for teens, such as the 2021 Surgeon General’s advisory warning of a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by social media, and the isolating effects of outright banning marginalized young people from platforms that provide community and self-expression, as highlighted by GLAAD’s 2022 Social Media Safety Index.

As a dad of two young children, the impact of technology and social media access on youth hits close to home. The most impactful policy change in years came in Florida, where the state has issued a new under 14 social media ban. On one hand, the research on the mental health risks of social media use for teens is deeply concerning — from fueling anxiety and depression to enabling cyberbullying — the negative consequences seem all too real. My heart hurts hearing the stories of pain and struggle that so many young people and their families have shared. We have to take this issue seriously.

At the same time, I worry about the unintended consequences of blocking access to these platforms. For many marginalized young people, social media provides critical spaces for accessing information, self-expression, and community-building. As Jessica Fish, Associate Professor of Family Science and Co-Director at UMD Prevention Research Center, notes for LGBTQ+ youth and teens of color, social media can be a lifeline to find support and belonging that may be missing in their offline lives. In an increasingly digital world, denying access could further disadvantage already vulnerable populations. There’s a balance to strike between blanket bans and a free-for-all. But how?

The Challenges of Age Verification

Age verification online is incredibly complex and has no perfect solution. What’s the best method to determine if someone is 13 ½ or 14 and 1 day or 16? Educational records are often sparse and prone to errors. Custodial accounts are cumbersome to set up and easy to game.

If you verify one age group, you need to verify all. When you verify all, who’s to say that the person vouching for a child has the right to do so? Services like eCBSV, the Social Security records check system, add too much friction using birth certificates or court documentation to show a legal relationship between a parent and a child. Digital ID or mobile driver’s license frameworks don’t have enough infrastructure yet.

Most traditional identity verification solutions rely heavily on credit header data and a person’s financial history — information minors simply don’t have. Children typically don’t have bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages or other financial accounts that leave a data trail for verification purposes. This “credit invisibility” renders many common verification methods ineffective. Age estimation methods via camera are not very precise either; it’s often unclear what age children are, not to mention many parents wouldn’t want a company collecting photos unsupervised.

The younger the audience, the more difficult it becomes.

Verify Parents First?

With verifying minors a difficult prospect, the focus then turns to parental verification. Laws or policies that require parental consent need a way to confirm a parent is who they say they are. This is a multi-layer process that must ensure the real family relationship and account for data privacy concerns. Any age verification system proposed by the state should come with some form of parental verification.

Of course, verifying adults can be difficult too, and a process establishing a familial relationship requires many physical documents such as birth certificates, adoption paperwork, or court documentation. As with any identity verification process, the system that arises must be simple and efficient enough to not drive away every user that tries to enter. An overly manual process will restrict access so much that platforms will become unusable.

The optimal solution would be an automated system that has a quick and easy-to-use document review “step-up.” Implementing this “trusted referee” step for edge cases can help increase coverage.

What’s Next for Age Verification?

This is a nuanced, thorny issue without easy answers. I’m convinced that if we approach it by putting youth at the center of their own solution, we can chart a better course.

While daunting, these issues are not insurmountable. At Socure, our approach starts with verifying the parent as a foundational first step using our industry-leading identity verification capabilities. From that known and verified digital identity, we can then establish parental consent and connectivity to the child.

Comprehensively addressing youth safety online will require a multi-layered digital identity solution combining verified parental identity anchors, advanced AI, database connectivity, and privacy-preserving approaches. It’s a critical societal imperative that the identity verification industry must prioritize — and at Socure, we’re at the forefront.

I’m proud to say that Socure can verify 45% more people in the 13-17 year old demographic than any other provider. Our current use cases include legal purchasing of age-restricted products like alcohol and cannabis, online gaming where players must be over 18, and identifying under-18 consumers for teen banking programs offered by fintechs and neobanks.

Going forward, we look forward to working with governments and the private sector to develop the best path forward for age verification.

Josh Linn

Leading digital identity verification and authentication strategy for a top 10 FI before joining Socure in 2018 to lead Data Acquisition efforts, Josh Linn now serves as Senior Vice President of Machine Learning Product Management & GM of RegTech leading innovation for the regulatory compliance and predictive analytics platforms. He holds and MBA from Syracuse University and a Master's of Science in Information Systems from Northwestern University.