social networks age limits

Social Media Age Restrictions: Why the system isn’t working

When it comes to allowing young people online and navigating the age restrictions of the social networks,  I have to say it is one of the greatest conundrums faced by parents, and indeed educators in the field today. A 2017 study found half of all 11 and 12 year olds had a social media profile. I know this is certainly reflected in my own workshops with students and I would say this is a conservative estimate for today. Some students even have a social media presence at ages 6 and 7 and this tends to increase exponentially throughout the primary school years. So despite the majority of popular networks having age limits of mostly 13+,  these are simply not being followed.

And there are generally a few different parenting camps on this:

  • Those that say no, not until 13 and their kids obey (the smallest group)
  • Those that say no, not until 13, but their kids get around their ban and they have no clue that they are managing to open social media accounts
  • Those that say, I would prefer to ignore the recommendations and slowly introduce a social network that I can closely monitor. I can then help teach them some skills, thinking and behaviors to do it well, whilst I still have some control.
  • Those that throw their hands in the air and say it’s all too hard, and give in to the pleas from their child because everyone else is allowed.
  • And then there are those that have no idea that the sites their children are accessing are even social networks.

So the system purely and simply isn’t working right now.

For many it is deemed clear cut and thus the system would be working if people did the right thing. The recommendations state that 13+ is the age requirement for most networks, so that is what we should be insisting on. But as we will see, there are many factors and complexities that continue to reinforce the status quo. Which is that many kids are using underage sites, many kids are lying about their age, many parents are lying for their kids, many parents are confused, many feel left in the dark, feel pressured and out of their depth. So a system that is supposed to protect our children and educate our parents, is not achieving that goal.

So let’s look at some of the issues surrounding age limits on social networks.

The age limits are not law, they are recommendations

Despite the often stated ‘breaking the law’ component of age limits, these age limits are not law.  The reason we have these age limits and the reason why the majority of social networks use the magic number of 13 years, is to comply with the USA’s COPPA laws (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). This states that it is illegal for companies to obtain certain information and data from any child under the age of 13 without parental consent. So to escape any jurisdictional breaches, the creators of the apps simply make them 13 + to avoid those legal minefields. So one could argue that many a child has watched a PG movie without that ‘Parental Guidance’ or played a 15+ game at age 14, and have thus similarly lied about their age to engage in an activity. They are advisory categories and not legal categories.  This is different to an MA or R rated movie or game category however, which does have a legal component.

Teaching them that lying is OK

Of course there is the very valid argument that whilst it may not be the law, we are still teaching our children to lie if we allow them to go on to these sites underage. For some that is the only argument they need and an easy way to put off the inevitable. For others, it is a lie worth breaking if they feel they can have a greater role in teaching their child the skills and thinking they will need, whilst they still have some say in their child’s online behaviours. For some, telling that lie is simply easier than hearing the nagging of their child. For others, it is easier than the guilty feeling of seeing their child left out, as the ‘only one’ not allowed to play where their friends are playing.

The developing brain 

It must be said that many of the content and critical thinking required on these social networks are just not suitable for developing brains. These networks were created for adults (largely because COPPA got them out of the messy situation of having to create places that are more kid friendly). And so they are playgrounds that get away with having adult content and adult concepts. Impulse control and ethical thinking are not yet developed in young people to the level that many of these networks require. I know this because everytime I ask young people how they would determine if someone was exactly who they say they are online, many have no idea. Some do, but most need to be taught. The complex thinking needed to make the most accurate assumptions about the connections they make and the content they devour, needs to be part of their education from the moment they start hanging out online. Otherwise, cognitively, socially and emotionally, they are just not ready.

Age alone isn’t everything

Anyone who has spent anytime online knows that age alone however, does not make for a rational, ethical, kind, responsible and resilient user of technology. Adults are often pretty crappy at this, and yet we somehow think that at 13 years of age our kids are going to suddenly have acquired all these skills. And yes some kids are certainly very proficient, empathetic and resilient in their online behaviours. But this doesn’t happen the day a child has their 13th birthday.  Because I also think about my 9 year old who, whilst not on any social networks yet, is still in that phase of wanting to do the right thing. He is kind, responsible, looks out for his mates and comes to me when things are not right or if he is unsure about something. In other words there are many ways in which he would be a great user of social media. But will he still be that way at 13 when hormones begin raging and he has secondary school, new friends, new emotions and new responsibilities to deal with? Because this is the time we want to hand over a device and say “Here it is. Here is the whole world at your fingertips. Here is every bit of content, every crazy person, every nuanced conversation and confusing imagery for you to see and process.  And I will then be far less able to have the input into your interactions, and to all that you are doing online, than maybe I would have right now. Right now you are still young and teachable and I have far greater control over what you are doing with your time. The idea that just as I taught you how to ride with training wheels before you went off to the skatepark on your own can also be a valid argument for drip feeding a social network to a younger child. Offering them real guidance, support and teaching whilst you are still there able to sit by and watch. The problem here too however, is that whilst many say that is happening, the reality is often quite different.

There are young people doing great things online

There are plenty of young people, who with the help of parents to moderate their accounts, are achieving great things and even becoming real leaders in online spaces. Jennifer Casa Todd explores this in detail in her book Social Leadia. Here, we see inspiring young people, leading the way for social change and having a voice for those who may not otherwise have the means to get a message out. They may be sharing positive work and creations, raising awareness and be learning valuable skills about the real and the online worlds. And yes, many are doing far greater things than many adults online and will thus grow up to have a very valuable understanding of the social networks and the online behaviours they are immersed in.

And so with all this confusion we also need to be asking……

Who is responsible for policing the age restrictions?

Should it be the parents role to constantly wage this battle with their children? Should it be the government insisting on greater restrictions on the tech companies to make it harder for under age users to sign up? Should it be the tech companies doing more to scrutinise and filter out under age users?

Should it be people like myself standing in front of parents and berating them for allowing their child to scroll an Instagram feed at 11 or talk to their friends on Whatsapp?

For the record, I don’t see it as my role to tell parents how to parent. I aim to give them the information, the perspective and understanding about what it means to grow up today. I offer them strategies to help them navigate this world with their families, and then empower them to make the best decisions for their families and their individual children.

Ultimately I would also like more done at the design stages of these apps. I would like to see better safety protocols, more content filtering, and easier and more responsive blocking and reporting. We have the Office of the eSafety Commission working hard to get these changes happening at the design level and I truly believe this will begin to happen. But until then, we need to be doing better as a society, as educators and as parents.

For me, I want our focus to be on teaching kids and educating parents. Because I recognise that if the parent is having no role to play, if the child is not getting that teaching….then as the networks stand right now…we are putting them in some pretty unpredictable and unsupervised adult playgrounds.

So what is a parent to do? Like many parenting decisions there are often no clear cut right or wrong answers. We must look to our individual families, our values and our circumstances and decide what is right for us. We must be sure we are making that decision from an informed place, with the needs of our individual children in mind.

So if your child is going to hang out on a social network, at any age, here are just some of the skills, thinking, behaviours and conversations they may well need.

  • You should be having a discussion about pornography and help them process the images they will more than likely see. And this includes the expectations of both boys and girls when it comes to relationships. If using social media early, these conversations will need to happen earlier. Because every social network has the ability to see porn if one knows how to look, or by inadvertently being sent it by people they know or people they don’t know.
  • They should be learning the skills to deal with cyberbullying, with digital drama, with possible exclusion and comparison. They will need to be building some resilience to the odd nasty comment and know how to deal with someone’s anger and prejudice. They will need the skills to deal with a group chat gone wrong.
  • They should know how to block and report and deal with unwanted attention.
  • They should have some control over the time spent online and be sure to have time for the other important pursuits they need to fit in to their day.  
  • They should be aware of what they are sharing. Who they are sharing things with. What happens to the data and images they share.
  • They will need good mentoring and role modelling about what it means to be in control of their social network feeds. To be shown how to be intentional about who they are interacting with and why, to be mindful of what they are consuming and to be aware of the effects their social media feeds have on their own social and emotional wellbeing.

So no, the sheer number of underage kids online and unsupervised, reminds us that as it stands, that system isn’t working.  So let’s continue to lobby for better design and safety protocols from the networks. Let’s continue to educate our kids on the very best practises. We need to know they will be safe and even thrive, whenever and wherever they find themselves online. And let’s continue to empower parents to become educated, to communicate and to play the crucial role in helping their kids be the very best they can be.


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