This is a question that I receive often from parents. Some that I talk with realize that the actual user agreement requires those who form an account to be at least 13-years-old, but they wonder whether it’s really so bad for their 11- or 12-year-old to be on the site. Many that I speak with are unfortunately unaware of the possible risks of the sites, and some of that set have allowed their kids as young as seven and eight form accounts.
The age restriction is something for parents to consider for two reasons:
1) Many social media sites and communication platforms restrict use of their site to only those 13 and up to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a law meant to empower parents and regulate what data Internet companies can collect about children without parental permission.
2) The features on sites like Facebook are really better suited for a more mature teen. Sites like Facebook are highly interactive, social, spaces, and while I am all in favor of kids learning to interact and expand their social horizons, the permanency of the Internet and the possible risks posed to a young or immature user can have serious repercussions. I was talking with one parent recently who allowed her 11-year-old to create an account, and she was astounded by how out of control her daughter became on the site within just 24-hours. She had uploaded hundreds of photos, connected with over 200 “friends” and spent almost the whole day (and even snuck out to the family room at night) to message, comment and peruse photos. Some of the photos that she posted were not photos that her mom approved, and as her mom was trying to do damage control, she realized that many of the kids that her daughter was connected with were not people that she really knew in the offline world.
In one national sample of parents in 2011 led by Dana Boyd:
- Although Facebook’s minimum age is 13, parents of 13- and 14-year-olds report that, on average, their child joined Facebook at age 12.
- Half (55%) of parents of 12-year-olds report their child has a Facebook account, and most (82%) of these parents knew when their child signed up. Most (76%) also assisted their 12-year old in creating the account.
- A third (36%) of all parents surveyed reported that their child joined Facebook before the age of 13, and two-thirds of them (68%) helped their child create the account.
- Half (53%) of parents surveyed think Facebook has a minimum age and a third (35%) of these parents think that this is a recommendation and not a requirement.
- Most (78%) parents think it is acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions on online services.
While I think it’s best if parents wait until their children are 13 to allow them to set up an account, I think the more important issue is for parents to help their children be safe on social networking sites like Facebook.
To do this, we developed a Social Networking Parenting Guide that you can read more about in the Critical Issues part of our site, but here they are:
- Familiarize yourself with social networking sites. Before allowing your child to set up a social networking site, set up your own profile. Become familiar with the online culture of the site, the privacy settings and the interactive features available. If you do allow your kids to have a social networking profile, set up the page together and make sure you are online “friends” with your teen.
- Talk with your kids about what appropriate behavior looks like online, and help them to think before they post.
- Remind your kids that there are no take-backs online. Once something is posted or sent online, it is very difficult to regain control of that content. Any image can be copied, forwarded, altered, or shared in the virtual world.
- Know what your kids are doing and with whom they are communicating. We recommend that your children only be connected online withpeople they know and trust in the physical world. Review your child’s “friend” list and ask them how they know the individuals they are connected with.
- Use privacy settings to restrict who can access and post on your child’s profile. We recommend using a strict setting such that only your kid’s online friends have access to the information, photos, and videos on their social networking page.
- Talk to your teen about avoiding talk about sex online. Teens are seeking love, attention, and affirmation, and chances are good that there is an online peer, stranger, or even a predator willing to give them the attention their hormones crave. Understand that in our sexualized culture, many teens feel pressure to post and send provocative images, texts, comments, and videos. Help them to know to come to you if they are ever contacted by a stranger or someone who makes them uncomfortable online, and consider blocking any individual who attempts to connect with your child that they don’t know in the physical world.
- Tell your kids not to impersonate, exclude or attack another individual online. Using technology to be cruel to one another will not only hurt feelings but could also place your child at legal risk.
- Consider monitoring your child’s social networking activity. Whether as an online “friend” through the site or by having access to your child’s online sites and passwords, keeping up-to-speed with your kid’s online activities is very important. Consider also using monitoring software (like SafeEyes www.internetsafety.com/xxxchurch), which can help you stay informed about any risky behaviors or tricky situations they may encounter online.
- Don’t overreact. If something negative does happen, take a few deep breaths and try to remain calm. You want to keep the conversation going and help your child think critically about their online actions. You want to make sure they know you are a safe place to come if something gets out of hand or if they run into trouble online.
Teach your child to:
- Be honest about their age
- Remember social networking sites are public spaces
- Avoid posting anything that could embarrass them or expose them to danger
- Check comments, posts, messages, and tags regularly
- Avoid inappropriate content and behavior
- Use privacy settings
- Think before they post