In order to create accounts on most social media sites, users are prompted to enter their date of birth. This barrier for entry is meant to protect children from logging into websites that may expose them to inappropriate content. At least, that’s what many parents of young kids believe. However, the age restrictions on sites like Twitter and Facebook have little to do with content, and everything to do with the way these sites are allowed to gather and collect the private information of their users.
Consent not Content
Kathleen Boehle, Director of Securly 24×7 Student Safety Operations, tells Parentology how these laws were created as a result of The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) — which has been governing the way websites collect and track data from the 12 and under set since its 2000 enactment — and is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
COPPA covers everything from how parental consent is obtained, to the clarity of posted privacy policies. However, nowhere in COPPA’s definition does it mention regulations regarding how appropriate site content will be for younger users.
13 Going on 30
New York-based media and relationship expert, Laurel Steinberg, PhD, tells Parentology not all kids are mature enough to log on at 13. “Thirteen is a good starting benchmark for social media use, though not all 13-year-old minds are built the same,” she says. “The ability to engage in mature behaviors that can meaningfully impact a person’s life (such as posting on social media) are privileges that must be earned by demonstrating an extended period of excellent judgment and decision making.” Something most kids are unable to do at that young of an age.
Keeping Kids Safe
There are ways parents can check to see if their teens are really ready to log on, which include doing their due diligence on any sites their kids are asking to use. “Use a trusted source (I like Common Sense Media) to investigate the apps or platforms your kids want to use,” Boehle says. She also suggests asking kids about their hypothetical responses to real-life problems their friends have had online.
Social media, especially as it pertains to how teens are using it, is an ever-evolving landscape. Parents should expect to have an ever-evolving approach to keep up with them.
Boehle suggests parents create a “digital citizen contract” with their teens addressing broad issues they may face online, including the ways they should respond. ”Talking about these issues, and having plans in place before giving your kids devices or letting them set up accounts, can prepare your kids to be responsible and safe online.”
Steinberg believes in a similar approach, suggesting parents have their kids consider the following questions before posting anything, “Will what I’m about to post possibly harm me or anyone else in any way? Would I (or my parents) be okay with having this posted on the cover of the newspaper? Would I want the person who reviews my college entrance application to see this post?”
This teaches kids how to property vet post content, and can potentially keep them from posting something that will harm themselves or others.
No matter when you choose to let your kids sign up for social media accounts, experts agree: not every 13-year-old is ready to create their own account.