Why age matters in social media

There is often derision at the age limits on social media sites. It’s a good bet that you will know someone whose child has a profile on a site, despite being under the age required in the platform’s terms and conditions. And maybe the view of the parent is that they monitor the child’s usage and therefore it isn’t a problem. But there are a few things you should be aware of before taking such a laid-back approach.

First off, most people don’t realise the age limits for most of the social sites. The image below shows the listed age restriction for some of the major social sites online at the moment. Most of us are probably aware that Twitter and Facebook stipulate you must be at least 13 to have a profile, but did you know that you have to be 18 (or 13 with parental consent) to have YouTube, Kik, Flickr or FourSquare account?

But why is it a problem really? Surely it is harmless enough for a child to be on Facebook or Twitter? They’re only talking to their friends. And they only watch videos for children on YouTube anyway and you need a profile to create playlists. Well, this is where things can get a bit serious.

The BBC recently revealed that private groups on Facebook are being used by paedophile rings to exchange images and to groom young people. A further concern is that when presented with the evidence and some examples of offending content, Facebook decided not to shut down the groups or to remove all of the content. This is in line with their current approach which seems to be not to take too strong a line, presumably at the risk of upsetting and alienating users.

This is extremely concerning when back in 2011 the BBC reported that as many as one in five children aged between 9 and 12 had a Facebook profile. This is a situation which is unlikely to have changed. And as a parent, could you honestly say for sure if your child had one without you knowing?

So where does this become a real problem? Let’s take the scenario where an eight-year-old child has a profile, so that they can talk with friends and stay in touch with relations (a genuine benefit of social media). Five years later, when they reach the required age according to Facebook’s restrictions, their profile is going to list them as 18 even though they are only 13! This is a problem because it appears that they are over the age of consent and so they may attract attention from adults that they shouldn’t otherwise be getting. But more importantly this means that any unscrupulous character out there who is trying to find children and who subsequently gets caught and prosecuted actually has a legal defence for their actions.

As the above scenario demonstrates, it is quite easy to misrepresent yourself unintentionally on Facebook and therefore attract unwanted attention. And as we all know, with complicated and misleading privacy controls as well, it is easy to also set up your profile to be visible to any manner of people. And whilst laws exist to prosecute and protect us from these criminals, those laws only protect us if the person accused doesn’t get off on a technicality.

But it isn’t just Facebook that has this problem and as users we need to understand that we are choosing to use platforms that aren’t policed. After all, we are voluntarily putting up huge amounts of very personal content that reveals everything about ourselves, and we don’t really know who is able to see it. So if you let your child do this you need to be aware of the potential issues. For example, the proportion of 13+ children posting on Facebook is relatively high, but how much monitoring is there of the content they are putting up and the people to whom they are talking?

Let’s take an altogether more concerning scenario. The apparently innocent posting of a selfie. A lot of children now have smartphones capable of taking and posting photos and if a child is using their own device there is no way a parent can adequately monitor and safeguard that child online. Even if a parent is regularly checking messages, friend lists and content it is all reactive and so unfortunately not preventing something potentially awful happening in the first place.

But what is the harm in an innocent photo being posted online? We’ll put aside the potential for inappropriate photos and focus on what a photo actually is. If someone takes a photograph of themselves and posts it online, they are posting a lot more than just an image. When a device takes an image it stores all sorts of additional information inside that image as ‘meta data’. Location, time, the device type to mention just a few. Saving that photo you can read the meta data in that image. Windows and Mac OS give you this info if you look at the detail of the image file! And this is in addition to some social networks posting the location anyway.

And the problem is not limited to a child’s profile. If you are posting pictures of yourself with your child then you need to make sure you are confident you aren’t broadcasting the wrong information to the wrong people. As has just been said, you don’t fully know who can access that image and if it has meta data then they are learning a lot about you and your family.

Straight away you can see how much information you might be unwittingly broadcasting to someone about yourself and your family that would allow them to pinpoint your location very quickly. And with regular postings someone could get a very good idea of your movements, habits and plans. In fact, they could get an idea about your whole life. Even someone planning to rob your house could very quickly scout your property, work out when you’d be away and plan how to undertake the burglary without even having to leave their living room. It would all be on your social network waiting. That new TV you bought and told all your friends about online, that will be item number one on their list.

The content of an image itself also says a lot more than you might be aware of. Even if you are clever enough to have prevented loads of meta data being embedded in an image, if the image itself has a street sign in it, or relatively unusual landmarks, then it won’t be long before someone can piece together a location, especially when they have all sorts of other information about you as a start point.

This really is just the tip of a rather dark iceberg. Social media is deceptive. It draws us in and we feel compelled to share things about ourselves. Take a look at your friends list next time you’re logged in and then take another look at the things you have posted on your wall. Then ask yourself, would I really reveal all this stuff to everyone of those people if I met them in the street? If the answer is no then don’t do it on social media either.

A little concerned? What should you do then? Well you should turn off GPS/ location services for the camera on your phone for a start. And on any phones your family own. Make sure your social media privacy settings are locked down to just friends and make sure your friends are actually friends and not just acquaintances. And make sure your children not only meet the age requirements for a site, but educate them on what the true dangers are when posting information about yourself online.

It is also seriously worth thinking about whether you want your children to use sites like Twitter and the like, where content isn’t even restricted to a network of friends. It might be cool for their friends to know exactly where they are and what you’re doing at every second of the day, but it can also be quite hazardous as well. And at the end of the day, almost all networks absolve themselves from the responsibility of policing their site and safeguarding their users. So it is important that we take seriously our online safety and realise that we might be posting more than we realise when we put something online.

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