How Old is Old Enough for Social Networking?

Socialmedia 315

No one under 13 allowed. That’s been the rule on most social media sites since 1998 when Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The thinking behind the law was that children under age 13 aren’t developmentally ready to handle 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 younger than age 13 time to grow up by requiring websites that want to interact with them to follow strict rules and get permission from parents. But kids have figured out that it’s very easy to lie about their age online. Also, many parents regard the under 13 rule as a guideline — more like the ratings associated with movies rather than the law of the land. As a result, millions of children have signed up for accounts on Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites.

There are compelling reasons to hold the line on the COPPA rule. Parents should consider all of them before letting a child sign up for social media sites designed for adults.

Fudging your age may not seem like a big deal. Most adults eventually decide it’s OK to deviate from the truth now and then, but allowing — or encouraging — 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.

The COPPA rule brings websites into compliance with laws to protect children from predators. Some people believe the law could be improved, but that’s not a justification for breaking it, especially since you probably want your child to comply with other protective laws. 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, including advertisements, that parents would rather they not see. Because they are curious and less guarded, younger children are also more likely to click on malware.

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, liquor, diet products and dating services. A child who shaves three years off her age will be exposed to all of this when she’s 15 instead of 18.

They do exist. A number of engaging social networking sites have been designed specifically for children. Yousphere, Kidzvuz, Frankentown, Fanlala and Fantage are just some of the websites that offer children under 13 a safe place where they can experiment with sharing, chatting and blogging.

The world of social media changes fast. There are rumors that Facebook is considering a "with parental permission" category for users. Until this happens, parents need to think carefully about whether early social networking supports or undermines their values. Kids often push to do things before they are ready, but childhood is not a race. There’s no prize for finishing first, and social media may be one of those places where just a little more maturity can make a very big difference.

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. She is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict.