How Old is Old Enough for Social Networking?

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 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 that it’s very easy to lie about 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. When kids clamor for an account “because everyone else is doing it,” they aren’t wrong. A 2012 study by MinorMonitor found that 38 percent of minors on Facebook are now under thirteen.

Age restrictions are, of course, arbitrary. Some sixteen year olds are informed enough to vote and some 25 year olds aren’t, but the law doesn’t allow anyone to cast a ballot unless they are 18. Same for driving. Even if you’re capable of handling a vehicle car at 14, you can’t get a license. Admittedly, there are other areas in which age restrictions are taken less seriously. Very few young people wait until 21 to take their first sip of alcohol. And some parents reason that, if they are going to drink anyway, they might as well do it at home where they can be supervised and won’t be tempted to drive.

Similar logic seems to govern attitudes toward social media. Parents figure that, if they help a child set up a social media account, they can at least keep track of what they are doing. In some families, that may be true. And, yet, there are still compelling reasons to hold the line on the Under Thirteen rule. Parents should consider all of them before letting a child sign up for Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Tumbler, Twitter Snapchat or any other social media site designed for adults.

Lying. Fudging your age may not seem like a big deal. Most adults eventually decide that it’s OK to deviate from the truth now and then, especially to spare another person’s feelings. Children, however, need a great deal of experience with telling the truth if honesty is to become their default position. 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.

Laws. The under-thirteen rule brings websites into compliance with laws to protect children from predators. Some people believe the law could be improved, but that’s not necessarily a justification for breaking it, especially since you probably want your child to comply with other protective laws such as those that prohibit the sale of cigarettes or liquor to minors. 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, 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, 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.

Alternatives. 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. All of these sites require verifiable parental consent, and many have monitors or filters that keep kids from saying and doing things they might regret later. Kids who learn the basics on these sites will be better prepared when they enter the rough-and-tumble world of adolescent social networking. (If you decide that a child under 13 would be better off on one of these sites, Facebook makes it easy to deactivate an underage account atwww.facebook.com/help/contact/209046679279097.)

The world of social media changes fast, and there are rumors that Facebook is considering a “with parental permission” category for its users. Until that happens, parents of children under 13 need to think carefully about whether early social networking supports or undermines their values. Kids, of course, 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 just a little more maturity can make a very big difference.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs.  She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict.  Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.