Posted On: March 8, 2013 by Patrick A. Malone

The Perils of Underage Use of Social Media

It’s a techno world, we just live in it. As much as parents want to give their children everything they need for learning and having fun, the adoration many kids have for social media poses important boundary issues.

Writing on KevinMd.com, pediatrician Natasha Burgert recalls a visit from a 10-year-old patient who had a completely age-appropriate love for dancing, gymnastics and horseback riding, and, as Burgert saw it, a wholly unacceptable involvement in Pinterest, a photo-sharing website where users create and manage thematic posts based on their interests and events.

Burgert was discomfitted to learn that not only was the child active on Pinterest, but that her mother had helped her set up the account. Said mom: “[T]he stuff she looks at is OK. She likes arts and crafts, and looking at hairstyles. Sometimes she shares ideas with me.”

Burgert clearly believes it is not OK for a 10-year-old to be surfing the web alone. She said there’s a common misconception by parents that social media sites are suggested for children older than 13, based on the network’s content, like a PG-13 movie.

By federal law, users of social media sites must be at least 13 years old.

The long-term consequences of a 10-year-old’s online activity are unknown. Do you really want to risk your child’s future?

Here are Burgert’s reasons for encouraging parents to enforce the age limit on social media:

1. A child younger than 13 (U13) is protected by the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act (COPPA). Essentially, COPPA protects a child’s personal information from being collected and shared. Such protection is being updated to include online data tracking, location, photos, videos, and information available to third-party advertising networks.

Creating an account for a child U13 using a false date of birth circumvents the federal law. That means the social networks, and all the information your child shares, are completely out of your control.

(Some people believe that COPPA laws decrease a child’s protection online, arguing that without COPPA, fewer children would lie about their age, which would enable better online protection based on their true age. But it’s still the law.)

2. Kids know the U13 rule. If you, as a parent, falsify your child’s age to create an account, you are saying that it’s OK to lie on the Internet. You are saying that the rules don’t apply to your kid. Is that really what you want to do?

“Teaching appropriate boundaries and limitations on the Internet are of paramount importance,” Burgert writes. “Parents should be providing an example of ethical and responsible internet citizenship. This means enforcing the rules.”

3. Children U13 do not have the intellectual or emotional maturity to handle many social media themes. Pre-teens have enough trouble with real-life social interaction. Their reasoning skills are developing, and they’re vulnerable to online harassment, solicitation and cyber-bullying. “Allowing a child U13 on a major social site,” says Burgert, “is only prematurely increasing this risk.”

4. There are safer alternatives for children U13. Learning how to navigate and interact on social media sites is an important skill, and kids need to learn responsible Internet behavior. But some pre-teen social networks enable this education, they’re fun and they provide legal protection. For guidance in this realm, and a list of such sites, link to Common Sense Media.

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