In 1998, the United States Congress passed a law called the Child Online Protection Act – COPA. That law required that if any service online had a user under the age of 13, they had to get “verified parental consent” — which most services reacted to by setting 13 as their minimum age.
There have been attempts around the world to change that particular standard. Notably, in 2015, the European Union voted on a measure to raise the effective minimum age for social and online media to 16 years old, but that vote failed.
Not that a passing vote may have made much of a difference in actual practice. A BBC news survey found that three quarters of 11 and 12 year old kids already used social media, and just lied about their age when signing up. A survey in the US similarly found that, quote:
The average kid gets their first smartphone at age 10.3, and opens their first social media account by age 11.4. By the time they’re 12, 50% of kids use at least one social media platform.
There are numerous reasons a kid may choose to lie about their age in order to join a social network (usually in these articles loosely defined as any online service that includes display of user-created content or two-way messaging, to include services like WhatsApp and Kik along with Instagram and Snapchat. Some do it with parental permission, some not so much.
Either way, what they’re seeing out there is a full spectrum of the internet. Quoting from a report in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper:
A survey of 13 to 18-year-olds found 24 percent reported that they were targeted on the internet because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability or transgender identity. One in 25 said they are singled out for abuse “all or most of the time”. More than four in five (82 percent) of the 1,500 youngsters polled said they had seen or heard “online hate” in the previous 12 months.
The other side of this, however, is that while parents very rightly want to protect their kids from being abused and bullied online, access to the internet and unsupervised use of social media can often be a safe haven for kids who may not necessarily find support in their offline life – even if it comes at a price. Quoting from a 2013 Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network study:
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth experience nearly three times as much bullying and harassment online as non-LGBT youth, but also find greater peer support, access to health information and opportunities to be civically engaged
So if you are a kid (as I know some of our listeners are), or if you have kids, or even if you were a kid at one point…