Should social media platforms use age verification to stop underage use?

Image attribution: Cory Doctorow under Creative Commons License

Journalist and parenting writer Olivia Gordon compares the ease at which children access social media platforms underage to ‘no bouncers on the door’ and advises on what you can do as a parent to help them manage the risks.

How do children underage access social media?

A generation ago, parents worried about children sneaking into clubs underage with fake IDs. But today, parental worries are closer to home, with children joining social media networks underage on their phones, while sitting on the sofa surrounded by their families.

And these days, children wanting to join clubs underage don’t even have to sneak in, or show any ID. It’s as easy for them as typing in a fake year of birth; there is no verification process, no bouncer on the door.

How many children use social media underage?

A new survey by Internet Matters has found that a large percentage of children are using social media sites underage. The survey of 1000 11-15-year-olds with social media profiles found that 62% of 11-year-olds and 69% of 12-year-olds have a Facebook profile, despite the fact under-13s are not allowed.

36% of 11-year-olds and 57% of 12-year-olds use Instagram, while 22% of 11-year-olds and 41% of 12-year-olds own a Snapchat account (for both these sites, the minimum age is also 13 plus). Half of all 11-15 year olds surveyed were on WhatsApp, which has a minimum age of 16. Many other children under 13 also use Twitter and Skype, again underage.

These social media sites all have minimum age requirements and accounts can be deactivated if they find a child has lied about their age, but they do not verify the dates of birth children type in. Even if a parent does get a child’s profile deactivated, it’s literally child’s play to set up another one.

Children as young as 11 are posting on social media sites an average of 26 times per day and typically attract 100 or more followers on each network, but fewer than half of these ‘friends’ are ‘real life’ friends.

How can parents take action?

Just like adults, young people want to be on social media – it helps them connect with friends, share knowledge and express themselves. Ultimately, since these sites have no reliable ‘doorman’ turning back underage children, it’s up to parents to take on the role of security guard.

A child can get onto social media if they really want to – even if they are forbidden, they can use another child’s phone or create an account they don’t tell parents about – but parents do have the power to protect children online by giving them the tools to make social networking safe.

Carolyn Bunting of Internet Matters says: “Our message is to keep talking to your children and stay involved. We want to emphasise the importance of talking to your children in the offline world so you can keep them safe in the online world.”

5 tips to keep kids safe on social media

  • Stay informed: Internet Matters encourages parents to educate themselves and their children about the various social networks, agree with their child when they are mature enough to join one, and create the child’s profile together, setting privacy levels at the highest level.
  • Teach children about platform safety tools: Parents can teach children how to block or ignore people on social media and what to do if anything makes them uncomfortable – for example giving them a sentence to use if they want to leave a conversation quickly.
  • Set clear boundaries: It’s a good idea to give children set boundaries about which sites they can use, and for how long, from the start, as well as what they may and may not post or repost.
  • Talk about the risks: It’s essential to tell them about the dangers: that people online may not be who they say they are, that what you post can be shared, and about the risks of chatting to strangers, let alone meeting them.
  • Keep on top of privacy: A child should know never to share their password, full name, address or school, and that they shouldn’t use webcams with people they don’t know, and how to disable webcams. Many parents find it helpful to join sites themselves and ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ their children.

What do parents and children think?

Gail Partridge, a consultant from Scotland, is one mother who is keeping involved with her child’s social media use in this way. Her 11-year-old, Zoe, is on Snapchat, Instagram and (now called TikTok), but knows never to share her full name, age or school online and says: “I enjoy being on [social media sites] and I know what is right and what’s wrong.”

Gail agrees: “We have quite an open relationship when it comes to social media and I know all of Zoe’s passwords.” Gail thinks social media use has a positive impact for Zoe’s friendships and education. She says: “Obviously I worry about things like grooming and sexting, but Zoe is quite wise and we speak about it.” When one of Zoe’s friends posted something inappropriate on Snapchat, Gail banned Zoe from using it for a time. Zoe is now allowed to use it again with a safe network of four friends.

At 14, Constance Bauer, from Kingston, Surrey, has 160 Instagram followers and 30 on Snapchat, but her mother Catherine, a salesperson, is careful to check what Constance is posting.

Catherine says: “The first thing I said to her was ‘Don’t put up anything bad’. And I said I want her to report to me straight away if someone says anything horrible or criticises her.”  Constance says: “I never post anything degrading or negative.” She adds:  “I don’t make any of my photos public. I only send them directly to my friends.”

How early should you teach online safety?

For modern parents, protecting our children isn’t as clear-cut as it was for our own parents. When we were growing up, we couldn’t easily hide from our mums and dads if we’d been smoking or going out late.

But these days, we can’t know just by watching our children’s activities and snooping through their bedroom where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing online.

And while the advice remains not to allow underage children onto social networks, the reality is that it’s very hard to stop them, and all their friends are doing it. So, we need to make sure children from the very start of their internet use understand the risks so that they want to protect themselves.

Just as a child is taught road safety and a parent holds onto them when they learn to ride a bike, they need to be guided to look after themselves online.

For Kate, a journalist from London, it’s safer to join her 11-year-old, Lucy, online and help her closely, than to try to stop her joining social networks and risk Lucy experimenting on her own in secret.

Kate says: “I know officially she’s too young, but I am friends online with her and keep an eye on what she’s doing. I’ve had to have words with Lucy about some things she’s reposted which I think are inappropriate, and also helped her unfollow people who post disturbing images.

“I think it’s good they get used to using social media safely, while we can still keep an eye.”

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