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Three Reasons Social Media Age Restrictions Matter

Young girl looking at cellphone

The minimum age to open an account on nearly every social media platform‑—TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Kik, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, and more— is 13. Despite this requirement, displayed on each of these site’s “Terms of Use,” a study conducted in the U.K. by Ofcom finds that nearly 80 percent of 12-year-olds already have social media accounts.

Everyone knows how incredibly easy it is for a child under 13 to open a social media account. All they have to do is use simple math to figure out a birthdate that makes them, say, 72 years of age instead of 11. Few, if any, social media sites use age verification tools. So, in just a few moments, children can easily gain access to a world of people, videos, photos, posts, likes, and more that their undeveloped brains just might not be ready to handle. As a society we have largely given up caring about young kids being online, giving age restrictions a collective shrug and "so what?" But many of the online problems that plague kids today, such as cyberbullying, sexting, exposure to inappropriate content, predators, screen “addiction,” and more would likely decrease if parents just waited a bit longer to give their young ones access to connected apps.

Here are three reasons to wait.

1. Children under 13 don't yet have the hardware upstairs to make smart decisions online. Just because kids seem tech-savvy at increasingly younger ages, doesn't necessarily mean that their brains are developing at the same rate as their digital acumen. Research shows that it takes children about 12 years to fully develop the cognitive structures that enable them to engage in abstract thinking, which is a necessary prerequisite to ethical thinking. So, before 12, it's difficult, if not impossible, for a child to fully grasp the impact of their actions upon others, online or otherwise. Yet young children are increasingly joining social networking sites, sometimes putting themselves in harm's way by engaging or being targeted by cyberbullying, dangerous “challenges,” online harassment, misinformation, and more before they understand the dangers and/or know how to respond appropriately.

2. You will help your children protect their personal information. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the U.S and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU are two laws designed to protect the personal information of children. These laws require that consent from a parent or legal guardian must be provided before a company collects personal data for children under 13 in the U.S. and between 13-16 (depending upon the country) in the EU. These laws designed to protect children don’t work if a nine year-old claims they are 13. When a social network account is created for a child under 13, or when a child uses a false birthdate, these laws cannot protect their personal information from being collected and shared with third party advertisers. Bypassing these protective laws can give marketers access to the names and addresses of your children, and in many cases it allows them to observe how/where they play, what they say, and who they hang out with.

3. Lying is just plain wrong. Living in a civilized society means we have some implicit agreements: we take turns, play fair, stop at red lights, and hold the door open for old ladies. And we tell the truth. Sure, giving a fake birthdate to TikTok seems like a harmless white lie, but it's a lie nonetheless. I'd like to believe we can all agree that honesty , online and off, is important. That's why it is the first of "Five Principles of Citizenship" (see video below) we teach students in Cyber Civics. Ultimately, when to allow kids access to social media sites is a parenting decision. So decide if you’re comfortable with them lying to Instagram or TikTok now, as it may influence how you deal with them possibly lying to you later.

While it might seem difficult to say “no” when your child asks you to join a social media network that “everyone” is using but they are technically too young to join, consider these three reasons. Then, when and if your child grumbles, share this important life lesson: All good things are worth waiting for.

Diana Graber is the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" (HarperCollins Leadership '19) and founder of Cyber Civics and Cyberwise.


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