The minefield question of the world is no longer “is there a God?” but “what is the age at which a child can use social media?”. The former question has only two answers – yes or no – and although people have killed and died for answers in the past, it seems far less dangerous than the latter in this digital age. As I waited for the PTA meeting at my child’s school to begin, the question raised by one parent soon escalated into all but fist-fight as parents argued for and against the untimely insurgence of social media into their ward’s life. One parent believed that, like dating, social media must be kept away from children until they are 18. Another said that 18 was too early, and she wasn’t sure she was ready for SM in her forties just yet. And as we bickered, the children sat in the background, in disdainful solitude, engrossed in glowing screens on their hands, rendering our questions moot.
The formal answer to the question is “usually 13”. Most social media sites require that the participant be 13 years or older, as mandated a US law called Coppa (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act), which dates back to 1998, according to which, online services would have to seek "verifiable parental consent" from younger users and would then be restricted as to how they could use the data. It must be mentioned that the 13+ limit is based on US privacy laws and not on age appropriateness. The office of the eSafety Commissioner of the Australian Government consolidates the age requirements of various popular social media sites as shown below:
However, it is well-known that in the digital domain, as in real life, rules are one thing, following them is something else altogether. A survey by the BBC’s news program for children, Newsround, found that more than 78% of children at primary-leaving age were using at least one social media network. The elephant in the room is that Facebook was found to be most popular with under-13s, with 49% claiming to be users. Instagram was used by 41% of 10 to 12 year olds.
A 2014 study in USA, on 442 children between the ages of 8 and 12, showed that younger children (8 to 10 years) spent an average of 46 minutes per day on a computer, compared with older ones (11 to 12 years), who spent one hour and 46 minutes per day on a computer. The time spent online were distributed among YouTube, Facebook,game and virtual-world play sites—Disney, Club Penguin, Webkinz, Nick, Pogo, Poptropica, PBS Kids—all designed for this age group—and Google.
Logistic regression analysis performed on underage use of social networking sites showed that Facebook use was connected to “daily use of the Internet from home , looking for new friends online, and online disinhibition (e.g., being able to talk about different things on the Internet than when speaking to people face-to-face)”. Parental restrictions were found to lower the probabilities of an underage child having a social network presence, while active parental mediation increases the odds.
The risks of exposing a child under 13 to social media are many. The primary risk is the loss of privacy. COPPA requires operators of social media sites to inform and obtain permission from the guardian of a child under 13, before collecting personal information from them. The creation of a social network account for a child under 13, using false age credentials prevents the enforcement of this rule, and personal information of the child can be collected and used for dangerous purposes that the child is not even aware of.
Parental mediation plays a critical role in encouraging or discouraging children from using social media. Contrary to popular belief that the child would certainly indulge in a forbidden activity in stealth, research has shown that only 3% of nine-year-olds whose parents have forbidden engagement in social media, still have an account. Honesty is a virtue, even in the virtual world, and the kid must be taught that along with playing fair, following rules and taking turns, we need to be honest. Faking a birthdate may be a white lie, but allowing it would blur the boundary between ethics and unethical behavior.
While parental rules are applicable for young children, as they grow, forbiddance and rules could lead to rebellion and souring of relationships. Thus, as they grow, control must gradually transform into open discussions so that when the child reaches 13, the parent and child could sit together, discuss and decide on or against using social media.