The Fine Print
They say to always read the fine print. To be honest, I rarely do. And if you’re anything like me, you can’t even begin to count the number of times you’ve signed up for something after checking a box or agreeing to 1,000 pages of terms, conditions and legal mumbo jumbo. Ain’t nobody got time for that! I’ve got some tweets to tweet, pics to post, ideas to pin and videos to vine.
But let’s push pause for just a moment because I’d like to put some information in front of you concerning social media. If you are a parent, one day hope to be a parent or have family members under the age of 13, this information should concern you.
Baby’s First Tweet
If they are old enough to unlock an iPhone and are talking, it won’t be long before your children start encountering and asking you about social media. As enticing as social media is for adults, it’s just as enticing for children and teens. Sooner rather than later, they will want their own—a Facebook page, a Twitter account, Instagram, Pinterest, and the list goes on. It can feel overwhelming as a parent when you must make a decision about what this will look like for your own child. And it’s an extremely important decision.
All the facts on social media aren’t in yet because, to be honest, these platforms haven’t been around long enough. Social media is so new that researchers haven’t had sufficient time to really study how it is affecting society. But one thing is crystal clear: Social media is having a monumental impact on the way we live, think and interact with one another. So, wisdom says to be cautious. Know yourself, and especially, know your children well.
In terms of social media and internet use, both we and our federal government recognize that children need to be protected in a particular way because of their vulnerability. That’s why way back in 1998 (when AOL and dial-up were king) the government passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Its purpose was to protect children by preventing companies from soliciting and gathering personal information without parental permission from those who are too young to know better. It defined a child as a person under the age of 13.
The reason why COPPA is important is because it has direct influence on every single popular social media platform you can name. Don’t believe me? Check the fine print.
Here are the age restrictions for some of the most popular platforms out there:
Instagram: You must be at least 13 years old to use the Service.
Twitter: Our Services are not directed to persons under 13. If we become aware that a child under 13 has provided us with personal information, we take steps to remove such information and terminate the child's account.
Facebook: In order to be eligible to sign up for Facebook, you must be at least 13 years old.
Pinterest: When you create your Pinterest account, you must provide us with accurate and complete information. Any use or access by anyone under the age of 13 is prohibited.
The reason these companies make age requirements so clear in their Terms of Service or Use is because they can be heavily fined if they knowingly retrieve and/or solicit personal information from children under 13 without proven parental consent. So instead of setting up the expensive age verification and parental consent systems (things like credit card proof) these companies have decided it’s not worth it to allow anyone requiring this parental consent (children under 13) to use their services.
If these companies are made aware that a user is under 13 years old, they will deactivate that account without warning or notice. No questions asked.
We’ve Got Some Un-friending To Do
If you’re like me, this information is new. I’m really glad the policy is in place because I think it’s good that the federal government cares about our kids, but I was unaware of it. Now that I know, I’m without excuse. As a Christian, I must sit under it and submit to it.
I have younger family members (under 13) and know children of friends who have social media accounts. I’m not their parent, so ultimately I’m not responsible for whether they have an account or not. But I am responsible for whether I interact with them. If something is morally or ethically wrong, I don’t want to support it. And either lying about your age or agreeing to Terms of Service that require you to be 13 when you’re not 13 is morally and ethically wrong. So I have some un-friending and un-following to do. Interacting with someone under 13 on social media supports wrong behavior. I don’t think it is right, even with parent permission, for a child under 13 to have an account through a social media provider who clearly states that users must be at least 13 years old.
If you are a parent of a child under 13, I believe you have a moral and ethical decision to consider. It is not illegal per se (you can’t get arrested or fined) to allow your children under 13 to have their own accounts, but consider what you are teaching them when you either allow them to falsify information or agree to particular Terms of Service whose age criteria they don’t meet. Communicating to a 13-year-old that government-endorsed age requirements are optional sets a potentially dangerous trajectory for the rest of adolescence.
13 is the New 16
Parenting is all about moving children along the road from childhood to adulthood. And like mile markers along an interstate, age milestones help them gauge their progress along the path to adulthood. At age 16 they can drive. At age 18 they can vote. Parents can leverage these milestones to emphasize the huge responsibility and privilege they represent.
What if we did the same with social media age requirements? Parents, make social media usage a milestone, a marker on your child’s path to maturity. Set a clear expectation of when the milestone will occur based on age and demonstrated maturity. Educate your child about right use. Then keep a close eye on them, just as you would a new driver. Don’t overlook the fine print—leverage it to help your child along the road to responsible adulthood.