Social media: why thirteen?

Those of you who follow my blog or know me professionally know that I love technology and that I’m a big believer in its ability to transform learning. You also know how much I love social media, for both personal and professional use. If I taught older students, I’d be very interested to explore its potential within the classroom. However, I am a primary teacher. Despite, in many cases, students’ enthusiasm for social media, it’s my responsibility to discourage it at this age and instead prepare them for it. My students (and their parents!) are usually surprised to find out the minimum age for the following websites/apps:

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Facebook: 13

Twitter: 13

Instagram: 13

Snapchat: 13

WhatsApp: 13

YouTube: 13 with parental permission (18 without!)

Please note: children may browse YouTube and watch videos. The age restriction applies to those who have their own channel, create content and interact with others.

All major social networking sites have a minimum age of at least thirteen (it’s even higher for some). This blog post attempts to answer the question that will inevitably be raised by disappointed primary-aged students: why thirteen? Many students are already using these sites/apps and will be reluctant to give them up without good reason. Many parents are also unaware of the age restrictions and need to be educated.

In my research, I expected to read about children’s maturity, behaviour and vulnerabilities (and I did), however, the main reason for the age restriction is data protection. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) restricts websites from collecting personal information from children under the age of thirteen. Worryingly, this law is unable to protect children who have ignored the age restriction and/or have lied about their age in order to sign up. In the UK, this is around three quarters of 10-12 year-olds! (BBC Newsround, 2016).

“It is well known that social media sites do not have the tools or manpower to effectively enforce their age restrictions. If your child lies about his age, or you do it for him, it is unlikely that the infraction will ever be discovered.”

(Third Parent, 2013)

Of course, another major concern is how the children act on social media. It is likely that students (the ‘digital natives’) know how to use the sites, but this does not mean that they know how to use them responsibly, as outlined by Common Sense Media:

“Pre-teens are technologically savvy, but their skills are likely to outpace their judgment.”

(Common Sense Media, 2014)

According to, almost half of children have been victim to cyberbullying at some level. “(Cyberbullying) can cause profound psychosocial outcomes including depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and even suicide.” (Pediatric Healthcare Alliance, 2016). Sadly, cyberbullying is commonplace. According to the same survey, 58% of children admit saying mean and hurtful things to others online. More than half! Its prevalence is due to the impersonal, anonymous nature. Many pre-teen children (as well as many teens) hurt others online because they are unaware of how their actions affect others. They generally cannot see the ‘bigger picture’. Netnanny (2015) and Pedialliance (2016) remind parents of their child’s ‘digital footprint’. Anything posted online becomes part of their online record, potentially impacting on their futures.

Even if a child is mature enough to understand and act responsibly, they are still putting themselves in harm’s way and could become victim to cyberbullying. For those students who intentionally bully with the aim of causing upset, cyberbullying is seen as the easiest way.

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In addition to cyberbullying, children’s naive approach to social media makes them vulnerable to other online dangers.

“13 is generally the age when kids start developing a broader understanding of the world around them and, along with that, a better sense of what’s appropriate to share online.”

(Common Sense Media, 2014)

Pre-teen children do not yet understand what’s appropriate to share online or how much. The Daily Mail (2014) described online sharing as ‘removing the barriers between private and public self’. Children are making themselves vulnerable to online ‘stranger danger’. A 2010 survey by TRUSTe found that 68% of teens accept friend requests from strangers. Furthermore, 8% of teens accept every friend request they are sent. A few years ago when I taught in the UK, I was alarmed when my student (still pre-teen even now) attempted to follow me on Instagram (of course, I declined). Her Instagram tag read ‘trying to get 500 followers’. This raised very serious questions about who the student was connecting with, and how they interacted with them.

Many parental advice websites raise the same excellent point: the internet is not suddenly safe at the age of thirteen. Just because students are legally allowed to join social media, does not necessarily mean that they should. They are still vulnerable to dangers outlined above and should approach social media with responsibility and caution, ideally following discussions and agreements with parents. A list of precautions/items to discuss can be found here. As a general rule of thumb, they should act the same online as they do in the real world.

“What is clear is that expert advice – and even rules imposed by social media companies – are being largely ignored by parents and by children desperate to join their friends online.”

(The Age, 2015)

The above quote identifies a key issue that parents and children will certainly be able to relate to: peer pressure. I’m not a parent myself, so I can’t image how difficult it must be to enforce rules that many other children and parents have ignored (either consciously or non-consciously). For parental advice regarding technology and social media, this book by Fiona Lucas comes highly recommended (click the image to be directed to its Amazon page). Alternatively, search the internet for parental advice. There is lots out there.

To summarise, digital citizenship is not established enough with pre-teens. It is our job as educators and parents to prepare children for social media before they use it. During the primary years, I believe that students can learn to behave responsibly online by using age-appropriate tools such as Seesaw and collaborative Google Apps (among countless others). These provide a monitored, controlled and safe environment for students to practice and develop digital citizenship. Their inevitable mistakes and misuses can be caught and discussed as teaching points to learn from, way before they are introduced to the big, wide world of social media.


  1. Data protection, cyber bullying and an unawareness of potential dangers are a valid reason as to the age restrictions (however problems enforcing this are almost impossible) however from my own personal experience of having friends of a certain age – having children – and seeing on my facebook feed daily baby photos. Surely these children also have a right, and this right has been taken away from them by their parents. The parents do not know where these photos will end up, who will use them or for what purposes.

    As stated above, it’s hard, if not impossible to stop under 13’s using social networks but ultimately it’s their choice to use them or not. For children under a certain age, the parents are taking away that choice for the child who will have countless numbers of photos on the internet, with personal data attached to them. Parents have to take some responsibility in this case.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for extending my thinking on this topic. I don’t know about the potential issues of baby photos. You have raised some important issues and questions. Certainly, there are millions of baby/child photos on the internet that have been shared by parents. These images can be downloaded and used by anyone for whatever purpose. Very worrying actually! Good point!

      As with the rest of this post, parents need to take some responsibility. As do teachers in the case of their students.

      Thanks for the comment.



  2. Although I had ‘no choice’, I think letting DD have FB almost at the second of turning 13 is one of the worst parenting mistakes I’ve made 🙁 . (Im an ict/cs teacher, so although she didnt like it, she accepted me enforcing the age 13 rule).

    I’m ‘friends’ with her, so I can see what she does, but the content that she now has access to by way of her friends and fof is worrying. Not particularly meaning porn or other heavy – grade stuff, but everything seems to be full of swear words, and beyond what I would like her to be seeing/doing/knowing, with seemingly no control.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Thanks so much for your comment. Your experience as a parent is something that others can learn from.

      My aim when writing was to enforce the minimum age of 13 and to discourage younger students from using it, but I agree that 13 is also very young. 13 is the minimum age, not the recommended age. That’s why I added the paragraph about this. ‘The internet is not automatically safe at 13’.

      I guess part of the preparation for social media includes resilience. They will see things that are inappropriate and they need to be mature enough to ignore it or report it, instead of being influenced by it. Easier said than done at 13!

      Thanks again for your valued insight.



  3. Thank you for this post! I’m saddened by the level of ignorance, or worse apathy, by so many parents in Hong Kong. As a parent, it’s pretty easy to enforce the 13 rule. If we’re teaching our kids that it’s ok to ignore this rule, we’re on a very slippery slope. We do, of course, rely on the school and teachers to enforce good online citizenship behaviour, so ‘Thank you’ for that!

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree wholeheartedly. The rule is there for a reason and should be respected regardless of whether the students/parents agree with it. Many of the big name sites require a date of birth to sign up, so lying is a necessary part of the process. Ignorance cannot always be an excuse. What other rules is it ok to ignore?

      Teachers similarly rely on our digital citizenship expectations to be reinforced at home and for parents to have these discussions with their children. By working together and singing from the same hymn sheet, we can ensure that our children are well prepared and responsible enough to enjoy the benefits of social media at a time when it is appropriate for them.

      Thanks again for continuing to support my blog. I’m pleased that you have enjoyed another post.



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