Children and Social Media

Derek Haake

As a father of toddlers, I have yet to experience the world where my children are beyond my protection. However, as my kids transition from toddlers to adolescents, their first experiences with the outside world will be unlike mine. My first experiences with the outside world involved interactions at daycare, playing with friends in Kindergarten and meeting my next door neighbors. My daughters have the potential to meet new people in China, the United Kingdom and even Australia even before they meet children on my street.

We live in the digital age, and the communications abilities we have today are things that many of us – most of us – couldn’t imagine just 10 years ago. As the owner of a company, I can engage almost anyone anywhere in the world with a video conference at just a moment’s notice. I have almost an infinite amount of knowledge at my fingertips and can brush up on almost any topic within a short amount of time because of the wealth of information that exists within the Internet. Research is still required because I have the wisdom and experience that allows me to acknowledge that not everything online is accurate or even remotely factual.

The problem with the online world is that people can post almost anything they want. With years of experience and a few degrees, I have – well, most of the time – the ability to figure out what is factual and what is at best a random idea, or at the worst a blatant lie. I have had a handful of unfortunate experiences in the online realm, but these have been limited because I have had 33 years of life’s lessons to guide me. My daughters may only have 3, 4 or 5 years of life’s lessons before they engage in the online world.

COPPA – the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act is designed to protect children in the online world. Most parents have no idea what this act is, but for any website that collects personal information about its users, the site owners are required to either restrict membership to those that are over 13, or the user must have a parent or legal guardian authorize the child’s use. Under COPPA, parents have to fill out a form and mail it to the website owners, which is a cumbersome and labor intensive process for many online companies.

Facebook has always had a policy that you have to be over 13 to use their site, and will turn away a user if their date of birth indicates they are too young. However, they don’t require a driver’s license or birth certificate and almost anyone can simply adjust their age to be within these requirements, and a recent survey found that 76% of parents had children that joined the social networking site before they were 13.

Why is this an issue you ask? Despite the obvious concerns I would have from the horror stories I have heard in the media, there are other concerns that parents should have. The world has changed from when most of today’s parents were young. When I went to my first job interview, I was asked to fill out a consent form for a background check, and to submit to a drug test. Now, companies still request background checks, but they also do their own research online, and there are many companies that store data on our social media interactions.

Facebook’s features, such as its “timeline” showcase your history of interactions on the site. For a child that begins posting on Facebook at 13, they could have 10 years of information on the site before they go to their first professional job interview. This is 10 years of information that can be automatically parsed, indexed and used against them.

I joined Facebook when it was still a private community for college students. As a private community, I was a little less-guarded, even though I was 26 when I joined, and in recent years, I ran some of these social media “background checks” on myself and found some horrible results. One of which was that I am a drug enthusiast evidently even though I have not used drugs, nor have I ever posted about them on Facebook.

Although I might not be an avid drug user, I am an avid gardener. “Weeding the garden” was a status I frequently posted in the past, and based upon these “background checks”, my frequent use of the word weed was used to imply something completely different than what I meant in my post. My point is simple; an innocuous status such as this could have gotten me in trouble with a potential employer.

With the highly competitive job market that exists today, employers are looking for reasons to whittle down the qualified candidates for a job. Even after these status updates are deleted, other companies collect this data and may retain it indefinitely. Every time you like something or click a “connect with Facebook button” or authorize an app, the company that owns that site has the potential to collect a lot of information about you from Facebook. Once they own this data, they own it and there is no laws telling them they have to delete it – it can create a record on us similar to our credit reports, except that there is nothing requiring the companies that own this data to delete it after 7 years.

As a parent of a child, Facebook can offer social interactions and experiences that can be beneficial for a child, but unless you teach and show your children how to use Facebook and other social media sites, they could be creating a “record” that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.

COPPA exists to protect children for a reason – because children that young don’t necessarily understand the potential ramifications of their online activity, and as a parent unless you can watch your child’s every move (which even as toddlers I have learned that I cannot), Facebook is something that should be left to children that have learned a little about life. Even if your child is over 13, the potential ramifications of what they post on social media could haunt them in the future and may even cost them a job.

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