"Must be at least 13 years of age." This is typical language often included within the Terms of Service of sites that our children frequent. It indicates the minimum age required to use the site. But, does minimum age actually reflect the appropriate age for usage? The answer to that question is sometimes, not always – it depends. So why do most mainstream sites use 13 as the minimum age? Basically, it's the age in which a minor can create an account without the online site being burdened with legal requirements governing information collection. Thirteen marks a threshold for easy entry.
As I mentioned above, not all sites are appropriate for a young person. It depends heavily on two main factors: mature content allowed on the site and treatment of that mature content (whether allowed or not). As parents, we can't rely solely on the stated age for use. We must review the site for content appropriateness taking into consideration the age and maturity level of our children. Here are some helpful tips:
- Review the Terms of Service to understand what content is allowed on the site. Does it include prohibitions against sexually explicit content? If not, the content will be available and minors will be exposed to it.
- If a site allows mature content, do they have protections in place minimizing the risk of exposure to minors? Protections would include tools such as a safe search filter and/or age gate to prevent access.
- Search the site using explicit terms or the acronym "NSFW," meaning not safe for work. What's being returned? Were you able to easily find a significant amount of mature content even though the site prohibits it? If so, this is a good indication that the site may not take steps to enforce their terms.
- Is there report abuse button for consumers to alert the site of potential violations? Report a violation to test the effectiveness of the tool.
We don't have to actively use the sites that our kids use; however, we need to understand what they are exposed to on these sites. Once our children are exposed to age-inappropriate content, we can't take those images, thoughts or words away.