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:
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 dosomething.org, 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.
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.