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No one under 13 allowed. That’s been the rule on most social media sites since 1998 when Congress passed COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The thinking behind the law was that children under 13 aren’t developmentally ready to handle all the complexities of social networking and other online activities. They can’t anticipate the consequences of what they post. They’re more vulnerable to harassment from peers or strangers. And they shouldn’t have their data vacuumed up by marketers. The law is supposed to give kids under 13 time to grow up by requiring websites that want to interact with them to follow strict rules and get permission from parents.
Even though there are good reasons to postpone networking on grownup sites, kids have figured out it’s very easy to lie about age online. Also, many parents regard the Under Thirteen rule as a guideline, more like the ratings associated with movies rather than the law. As a result, millions of children have signed up for accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites.
Age restrictions are, of course, arbitrary. Yet, there are still compelling reasons to hold the line on the Under Thirteen rule.
Lying. Fudging your age may not seem like a big deal. Children, however, need a great deal of experience with telling the truth if honesty is to become their default position. Allowing a young child to lie about age opens up questions about truth and trust long before children are ready to think clearly about them. If you don’t want your child to regard truth as optional, it may be unwise to make exceptions too early.
Laws. The Under-Thirteen rule brings websites into compliance with laws to protect children from predators. If a child has permission to disregard age rules about social networking, will he or she feel free to click through other legal barriers such as the “you must be 21 to enter” warning on sites that feature pornography?
Risks now. Research suggests younger social media users are more vulnerable to harassment in part because they have fewer tools to cope with online aggression. In addition, kids may see content that parents would rather they not see. Because they are curious and less guarded, younger children are also more likely to click on malware, malicious software that takes control of a social media account to collect data or send spam.
Risks later. Once Facebook users turn 18, they are subject to adult rules, anyone can search for and message them, and they’ll see ads for products considered suitable for adults including gambling or dating services. A child who shaves three years off her age will be exposed to this at 15 instead of 18.
Alternatives. A number of engaging social networking sites have been designed specifically for children. Club Penguin, Kidzvuz, Franktown Rocks, and Fantage are some that offer children a safe place to experiment with chatting and socializing. All require verifiable parental consent. Kids who learn the basics on these sites will be better prepared when they enter the rough-and-tumble world of adolescent social networking.
Kids will often push to do things before they are ready. And it’s easy for parents to feel pride when a child seems precocious. The truth, however, is that childhood is not a race. There’s no prize for finishing first, and social media may be one of those places where a little more maturity can make a very big difference.
Columnist Carolyn Jabs, M.A., writes about technology and family life.