Go on, admit it. Your ‘underage’ child has a social media account.
The statistics show you’re in good company. In fact, more than half of 11- and 12-year-olds are active on social media - and so are some as young as six. But does that make it right?
Maybe she’s 11 or 12 and all her besties are on Snapchat. Maybe he’s 10 or 11 and finally wore you down about that Twitch profile. Sure, you would have preferred them to wait until 13+ … but where’s the harm? I mean, is this really another thing you need to feel guilty about?
That’s a really good question.
And the answer is a lot more complicated than it might appear. In fact, says Family Zone cyber expert Martine Oglethorpe, it’s “one of the greatest conundrums faced by parents and educators today.”
13+ mean 13+, right?
As you’re probably aware, all of the most popular social media platforms have the same age restriction: 13+. (And among the handful that don’t, “parental permission” is all that’s needed to gain entry at 13+ .)
Coincidence? Definitely not.
Nor is it the case that the developers of Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, etc. all happened to reach the same conclusion about online safety.
In fact, the origin of the 13+ age restrictions is a 22-year-old US law called COPPA, aka the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. That piece of legislation made it illegal to collect or store the personal information of children under age 13.
By definition, social media platforms collect and store users’ personal information. So in order to comply with the law they needed - officially at least - to ban under-13s.
You may also be surprised to learn that in Europe, most social media platforms have a minimum age of 16. That’s to comply with an even stricter, and much more recent, European Union law, the General Data Protection Regulation Act (2018), or GDPR.
Needless to say, neither COPPA nor GDPR exist in Australia (although there have been calls for similar child-privacy protection legislation here).
What messages are we sending?
As Family Zone cyber expert Dr. Kristy Goodwin points out, “If we tell our kids it’s okay to set up an account before they’re 13 years of age, we’re sending them a powerful message that it’s okay to break the law, and that’s a difficult moral position to come back from.”
OK, technically it’s not really “breaking the law” - it’s ignoring an advisory restriction - but arguably the message we send to our kids is the same: “You can write your own rules online.” And that is a risky precedent to set.
The most popular social media platforms have the same age restriction: 13+. Among the handful that don’t, “parental permission” is all that’s needed to gain entry at 13+ (Source: Action for Children)
Martine Oglethorpe, director of Melbourne-based digital wellbeing consultancy, The Modern Parent, believes it’s a minefield for parents and kids alike.
“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."
Martine Oglethorpe, The Modern Parent
The real issue is not a child’s chronological age - but their maturity level. That’s something virtually every expert in the field agrees on.
“It’s difficult to prescribe a precise age limit as kids need to have social and emotional skills to cope with the demands of social media,” Dr. Kristy explains, “For some kids, this is 13 years, and for other kids, it may be 15 years.”
Mother-of-five Martine agrees wholeheartedly. What’s more, she sees possible advantages of allowing certain children access at much earlier ages.
“I 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?
By that time, she reflects, she’ll be far less able to have the input into his online interactions than right now, while he’s still young and teachable and accepting of his parents’ guidance.
So how do you decide?
Family Zone cyber experts, in accordance with the Office of the e-Safety Commissioner, advise mums and dads to think carefully about questions like these before allowing any under-age child to open a social media account:
If after reflection and discussion, you decide your child is ready for a social media presence, it’s essential to come to an agreement about:
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