- Social networks have a minimum age for use and this is specified in the network’s terms and conditions or terms of service. Creating an account to join the network indicates acceptance of these terms. The minimum age for most networks is set at 13-years-old, though some networks will give a minimum age of 16, and some will stipulate age 18 or over. The minimum age is also influenced by your country’s national data protection laws.
- The minimum age of 13 arises from a US law known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) which requires online services and sites to seek parental consent when collecting personal data of children under the age of 13. To avoid the complication of requesting parental consent, social networks set their minimum age requirement to 13 to avoid the COPPA requirements.
- In your country, data protection laws are set by the General Data Protection Regulation 2016 (GDPR). Article 8 states that processing of personal data without parental consent is only lawful for children aged 16 and above. Member states can choose by law to state a lower age, provided it is not below 13. Some countries have opted for 13, others for ages 14, 15 or 16.
- The laws that have given rise to age requirements on social networks and other online services are aimed at the organisations that operate these services, not the individuals that use them. While it might not be against the law for a child to sign up to and use a social network when they are below the minimum age, it will break the terms and conditions. The consequence of this would be that, if the social network becomes aware of an underage account, they would delete that account and all data held about that child.
- It is important for children to recognise that, because of the minimum age requirements, they will encounter adults and content aimed at older users on social networks. This can include things such as adult content and advertising intended for adults, as well as topics and discussions not intended for children to see or participate in..
- Providing a false age to get on to a social network can have other consequences for a child. By informing the network that they are older than they are, a child could be exposed to content that is suitable for that age group but not for children. Some social networks also have additional safety features for users aged 13-17, so if a child sets their age to 18, these features are removed and make a child more visible on a social network or at risk of greater unwanted contact from others.
- It is important to inform and remind your students about the age requirements for using social networks, and the possible consequence of having an underage account deleted.
- Encourage your students where possible to wait until they are the correct age to use a social network. This can sometimes be challenging if they feel pressured to sign up because their friends are using a particular app or network. This may be a good topic for a class discussion on online peer pressure and an opportunity to work with students to identify communication apps and services that they can legitimately use.
- Discuss with your students the impact of giving a false age on a social network, including the exposure to content intended for adults and possibly the greater risk of contact from strangers.