The Ombudsman for Children has said he is very concerned by indications that key legislators may be about to try to increase the digital age of consent from 13 to 16 years of age.

Dr Niall Muldoon's worries are believed to have been sparked by amendments to the Data Protection Bill submitted this week by Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin who had originally supported the lower age threshold.

Last summer, the Government announced it would set the "digital age of consent" at 13.

This is the age from which ministers believe it should be legal for data controllers to hold information gathered from minors. Data controllers can be individuals or other legal entities.

Under the Government's Data Protection Bill, which is due to be debated tomorrow by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, parental consent to hold children's data would be required up to the age of 13.

In today’s statement, the Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon recalls that, last November, the same committee recommended a threshold of 13, which should be reviewed at appropriate intervals to ensure it remains suitable as technology evolves.

The current bill requires the Minister for Justice and Equality to review the digital age of consent no later than three years after the relevant legal provision comes into operation. 

Dr Muldoon said he was very concerned by the current indications that parties to the committee's report intend tabling amendments to raise the digital age of consent to 16 years.

Last Wednesday, Labour's spokesperson on children and youth affairs Sean Sherlock said WhatsApp's announcement that it would raise the minimum age from 13 to 16 rendered the Government's proposal redundant.

He also welcomed Fianna Fáil's and Sinn Féin's confirmation that they would now support the Labour position of 16.

Mr Sherlock said a threshold of 16 would be in line with Germany, the Netherlands, France, and other states, which have "best-in-class" approaches to protecting children online.

He added that WhatsApp will ask EU users to confirm they are 16, while Facebook will ask children between 13 and 15 to nominate a parent or guardian to grant permission.

"Children who don't have parental permission for Facebook will see a generic version of Facebook that is not customised based on their personal data," Mr Sherlock said.

"This shows that children will continue to have access to the internet but won't have their data exploited.

"So contrary to ill-informed claims, setting the digital age at 16 will not mean that a 13-year-old cannot use Facebook. Rather, it will mean that Facebook cannot use the 13-year-old."