Coming of Age in the Digital Age


Coming of AgeComing of Age

Age makes for an arbitrary boundary when it comes to socialization and technology. (Photo by Kevin Makice)

This past week, my first-born became legal. Not to drive, vote or drink, though; that comes later. My son turned 13 years old, making him eligible under terms of service to have his own social media account.

That isn’t to say he hasn’t been on those sites for years, though. His social media cred is older than our daughter, who turns four in a couple months. He has had moments where he used Facebook too much, only to self-censor like a boss when he found it was cutting into his reading time. These days, his activity is largely limited to liking Doctor Who content on my geeky Pinterest board and collaborating with peers on Google (despite his original account there being deleted due to age restrictions). He has never had much interest in tweeting, but he got a video camera yesterday that may signal the beginning of a new vlog.

My son isn’t alone in this underage accumulation of digital experience. A 2011 Consumer Reports survey claimed there were 7.5 million underage Facebook members, two-thirds of which were 10 or younger. According to the Pew Internet, 46 percent of 12-year-olds online use social media. Furthermore, 44% of teenagers admitted to lying about their age to gain access to a web site. That’s up from 15 percent around the time COPPA — Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act — was enacted in 1998, well before Twitter and Facebook existed.

That same study also reports that most teenagers are discriminating, with both the content they post and the online friends they keep. As newbies, kids come to the table focused on sharing with friends and family they already know, aware of dangers like Internet predators, identity theft, cyberbullying and computer viruses. While some of this literacy is acquired through interaction with role models in their own homes, creating the next generation of digitally fluent citizens is the explicit mission of organizations like Everloop, a COPPA-compliant social networking site that caters to the tween crowd.

“No matter what age is chosen,” argues Microsoft researcher danah boyd, “there’s not a magical event that happens on that birthday that makes the child suddenly older and more mature.”

Circumventing Rules With Lies

Her comment came during an email exchange shortly after the 2011 publication of boyd’s academic paper in the online journal First Monday — written with co-authors Eszter Hargittai (Northwestern University), Jason Schultz (UC–Berkeley) and John Palfrey (Harvard Law School) — that served as a critique of COPPA. The research featured one particular headline-grabbing statistic: 78% of parents surveyed help their children lie to Facebook about age.

The reaction to this controversial finding spanned the full range of opinion, paraphrased as:

  • “78% of parents think it’s O.K. to teach children to lie.”
  • “Kids need to follow rules, or they never will as adults.”
  • “My underage kid asked to join Facebook, and I said no.”
  • “I’m not a parent, but …”
  • “It seems most people have far too rigid an adherence to rules.”
  • “I signed up when I was 12, and nothing bad happened.”
  • “I wish I had Facebook as a young kid.”

More rigid commenters focus on discipline, while those willing to bend rules highlight the benefits of social support. Nowhere in those threads, however, can be found a claim that 13 is a universal phase change for humanity. (A recent study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center does give evidence that there is a critical change in kids between ages 7 and 9.) The lies of kids and their parents are a byproduct of COPPA.

Not to be confused with the failed law COPA (which attempted to govern exposure to content), COPPA was established in 1998 to facilitate parental control over information collected about their kids. Any website intending to track underage visitors must comply with requirements that include engineering mechanisms for parental notification and limited data storage.

Both in terms of compliance and PR, there is a disincentive for companies to cross the legal line drawn at age 13. In addition to the human and technological investment needed to guard that line, violations can cost a commercial enterprise up to $11,000 per instance. There have been about a dozen civil cases since 1998 (including five in the past two years). The largest penalty came in May 2011 when Playdom was told to pay $3 million. Terms of service policies are written to avoid dealing with these costly headaches, hence the age floor.

“Children learn to lie about their age,” CUNY School of Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis told the Wall Street Journal. “And young people are likely the worst-served sector of society online. That is a tragedy of lost opportunity.”

Online Privacy Is for Everyone

As the FTC was opening discussion on how to update the law to accommodate the reality of social media — amended rules that take effect on July 1, 2013 — CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued that kids under 13 should be allowed on Facebook. He claimed education as his reason, but at the time he was also tussling with the FTC over privacy issues created by his company. A later settlement would force the social media giant to turn their data collection into an opt-in system, but the picture of Facebook as Big Brother makes it difficult to trust Zuckerberg’s noble motives.

When we talk about kids being active online, the worry is less about what and with whom they are sharing their lives than what hidden data their participation generates that can be exploited by others.

In November 2011, boyd and Jarvis participated in a panel discussion about online privacy. They were joined by Stewart Baker (lawyer, formerly with U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and Chris Soghoian (Open Society Institute) in trying to determine how to negotiate the border between public and private.

As an example of how that boundary shifts, Baker offered Louis Brandeis’ appalled response to “snapshot photography” in early twentieth-century journalism, which allowed newspapers to eschew consent when publishing photographs or statements by individuals. Despite the claim that such individuals were injured and society’s morality was weakened, modern media (including the Internet) thrives on the availability of images captured in public settings.

“Privacy is the most adaptable of rights,” Baker argued.

Soghoian wasn’t bothered by the explicit capture of data or its use in services. Rather, he balked at the hidden use and accessibility of that data. As Soghoian sees it, it’s unacceptable that even an unlucky few suffer everything from public embarrassment to stalking to torture as a result of covertly shared data. “Many of the dangers posed by digital dossiers do not occur regularly, but are incredibly destructive to people’s lives when they do,” said Soghoian. “Even when companies follow best practices — and few do — it is impossible to be completely secure.”

Along with placing restrictions on how data can be used to harm people, boyd endorses forced transparency about the data practices of powerful entities, but not at the expense of people choosing to participate. In the name of individual privacy, COPPA prevents a segment of our population and their families from having access to that choice.

“Protecting privacy is about making certain that people have the ability to make informed decisions about how they engage in public,” boyd told the panel. “That said, I am opposed to approaches that protect people by disempowering them.”

Friends Stick Together

The deceptive behaviors reported by boyd et al are arguably necessitated by the scarcity of online social options there are for tweens and younger kids. Over the past few years, that gap has begun to be filled by sites like Everloop, Togetherville, Sweety High, and Magic Belles which cater to tweens and younger community members. Back in 2009, My Secret Circle was creating private networks for girls using USB drives personally distributed to real-life friends. The lack of traction those efforts had with my family, however, is due to the absence on those sites of my kids’ existing offline friends.

“Most people use social network sites to communicate with the people that they know,” observes boyd. “Teens — and especially tweens — are focused pretty exclusively on talking with friends from school, summer camp, and religious activities.”

After years of studying how kids of all ages use digital tools and connect with each other through networked devices, boyd understands better than most how critical these peer relationships are to personal development and self-esteem. Most young people start their digital training using Gmail or Skype, to “talk with grandma.” Google’s growing influence on K-12 computing is evident in initiatives like CloudK12, despite excluding Plus tools due to the age requirement. Even without institutional support, younger students in our local schools are heavily reliant of Google applications to communicate with each other and collaborate on projects.

“Age segregation isn’t what parents want,” argues boyd. “Kids use sites like Facebook to talk with mentors and uncles and aunts and youth ministers and other valuable adults in their lives. That’s really important.”

Some of the negatives of being online are overblown by mainstream media. Benefits like developing empathy, engagement in education, and giving voice to the introverted are too easily discounted. According to the Cooney Center report, the learning available through social media experiences is most impacting where kids are given the most freedom for expression. Available kid-centered options are “impoverished” compared to adult communities, however, largely due to societal fears on behalf of children.

When it comes to parenting and digital tools, I want to be able to support my young children’s opportunities to tap into those resources. I also want them to understand, through the choices they make, much more than simply that what you post as a kid will still be around in adulthood. My new teenager grew up introverted, with a tight but small group of lifetime friends. His younger brother hasn’t delved into social media, however, in large part because his offline social network is larger and more active.

“Parents know their children,” says boyd. “They make different decisions for different children. Giving parents guidance is extremely important, but creating restrictions based on age does little to help parents choose what’s right for their own household. I don’t think that it’s appropriate to focus on age at all.”

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