So what age should our kids be allowed on social networking sites?
This past week, and indeed for many years for those of us working in this space, the ‘argument’ about when to let kids have access to social networking sites and apps, has been an ongoing debate and was recently once more brought to the fore.
An article by Kylie Ladd in Mammamia resulted in both relieved head nodding at one end and vehement parent bashing at the other end of the spectrum . If you haven’t read the article, Kylie writes about her decision to allow her child on Instagram despite not being the recommended age. She believes that she is able to monitor and teach her child the appropriate behaviours and that she and her child shouldn’t feel ‘bullied’ by experts about when her child is deemed ready for social networks.
The problem with these ‘arguments’ however, is that it seems to be shrouded in an ‘us versus them’ mentality. There is much generalisations, and an inability to see the many complexities and grey areas of a not only complex world, but one that is dynamic and ever changing.
Like all things in life it is very easy to make sweeping generalisations. But not all parents are the same. Not all kids are the same. And absolutely, not all ‘experts’ are the same. And that’s just how the world is. We cannot all parent, teach or have fundamental beliefs the same as the person next to us.
So this particular ‘argument’ sees parents who allow their kids on social media despite age restrictions, confident they are playing safe and doing the right things, versus those desperate to uphold the righteousness of age restrictions and rules at whatever the cost, because it is deemed the right thing to do.
So, what are some of the variables we need to consider when we discuss whether kids are the right age to be using social networking sites?
We want to teach our kids to obey rules, that they are there for a reason and that our moral compass of right and wrong will be severely skewed if we allow them to flout rules such as age restrictions.
Whatever the age restriction says, then that is what we teach. Sounds good in theory. There is content and access to undesirable people that we want to protect our children from for as long as we can. So we should all just ’grow a digital spine’ and tell our kids ‘no’. Not until your 13 (or 17 if you want to go on Kik, unless of course you are 13 and your parent says its ok)
But there are some grey areas. For those of us working with kids and families in this area, we know that these complexities make it naïve of us to think that this can be the end of the argument, and at best make enforcing the recommendations flawed and problematic.
Age restrictions on App ratings are guidelines, not laws. App developers decide at their own discretion the age rating for their site and they are not governed by anyone. Mostly they will use 13+ however, as this helps them to get around COPPA laws (Child Online Privacy Protection Act) regarding the gathering of personal information of a minor (COPPA also has no jurisdiction in Australia). App ratings are also given separately by both the Apple Store and Google Play. This is sometimes confusing and the ratings perplexing. For example, Facebook state you must be 13 + to open a Facebook account, yet the Apple Store rates it as 4+, which is described as an “app with no objectionable material”. So the guidelines are there and of course they should be used as a guide, just as we do with movie classifications, but not necessarily as a deciding factor.
Kids want to hang with their mates: they don’t want to play in the playground no other kids are hanging out in and they don’t want to be left out of what is now one of the most important elements of their socialisation. They will often find ways around bans and restrictions of certain sites. In fact they don’t even have to try hard. They just walk out the door and re-download an app. Stop by a friends house, a café, log in to wifi and away they go.
Kids are handed devices and a whole world is served up to them: Kids as young as 5 and 6 are now given devices for their school should they be participating in BYOD or one to one programs. So essentially they have internet enabled devices in their back pocket or backpack. Despite still having good control over what our kids are doing at these younger ages, again with the ability to log in to the internet at any friends house or local café, policing the use of certain sites and apps becomes very difficult. Certainly there are many kids that will diligently listen to what their parents say regarding what apps they can use and parents will closely monitor activity to ensure their kids are staying safe. But this requires a bit of effort and unfortunately it is often the same parents that keep turning up to the ‘cyber safe’ information nights, and usually, these parents are the minority.
Many parents ban one app to the detriment of finding out about others. I myself have seen time and again parents focusing on a few of the more popular apps to ban without realising that there are a plethora of other ones waiting on the sidelines that their kids are using. As mum or dad don’t know they exist, in their eyes they are not breaking their rules. Only now they are using them with no monitoring, no training and no accountability.
Age alone does not determine whether you are responsible enough to engage in social media. We don’t hand our kids keys to a car at 18 just because they are of the legal age. A substantial amount of practise, teaching and experience must happen first. There are some very mature 12 year olds, and some very immature 14 year olds. We need to be sure our kids have the skills and behaviours to act safely and responsibly online, no matter their age.
By the time kids are allowed on certain apps, we have started to lose some control. If kids are handed the keys to the whole world of social networking at 14 or 15, we have already begun to lose much control over what they are doing. They spend a substantial amount of time online, mostly unsupervised, often out of the house, and privacy issues become blurry as they hanker for independence and a life separate from their parents. We may be missing that opportunity to ‘train’ and teach and learn from experience.
Some kids are not doing themselves any favours hanging out on social networks. They are hampering their digital reputation by posting inappropriate content that sheds them in a negatively light. They are consumed by ‘likes and followers’ and rely on social media alone for their sense of confidence and self esteem. Some kids bully, some are bullied. Some negative online interactions spill over into real life and school playgrounds.
Some kids use social networking sites really well. Some kids are following photographers and designers, emulating artworks, editing photos and making short films, seeking out inspirational quotes and sporting achievements. Some are able to just hangout and connect with friends with little drama. Some are exposed to the injustices of the world, to the plight of many less fortunate and have their social conscience ignited.
Some parents give in, watch for a little while, then become reticent. Some kids are getting on social media after pleading with parents who renege. After initial concerns, they monitor, become complacent and fail to notice their kids getting more risqué with what they post, who they talk to and what they search.
Some parents have a good understanding . They talk with their kids, they know their passwords, they check out their friends and followers and they are constantly teaching them the critical thinking skills they need to stay safe and responsible.
So what is the answer? Well, in the words of Danah Boyd…… “It’s complicated”.
We want to be teaching that rules are there to be obeyed. But we mustn’t be be naïve, nor settle for a false sense of security.
We need to keep up with the sorts of things kids are doing and we need to keep communicating with our own kids. We need to keep gathering as much information as we can and make decisions based on the best interests of our children and our families. We can’t be fooled in to thinking there are safe apps out there, when we know there can only ever be safe users. We need to remain relevant to our kids and understand the challenges they face and they enormity of living in this new mirrored, magnified and overexposed world.
Whatever you decide, whatever rules you feel are best for your family, be sure you do it with eyes wide open, don’t succumb to complacency, don’t be ruled by fear and the unknown and be sure that communication is frequent, ongoing and always adapting to the changes.
Telling kids to go back to reading books and playing with dolls, is just not going to cut it today. Times have changed. Keep the dolls as long as you can, but please don’t expect that of a 12 year old. This is a new world and a new way of communicating and connecting. We can’t afford to fight it.