shocked-little-boy-at-laptopSocial media is part of our lives now. Every day, most of us will navigate a series of choices what to say online and how to say it; sometimes the existence of a second Internet life seems odd to those of us who grew up even before dial-up modems, Juno email addresses, and endless AOL Online CDs arriving in the mail. For our kids, though, an online life is always going to be part of their world; which means that somehow, we have to teach our kids to navigate safely through an iLandscape that didn’t exist when we were their age. Internet safety for kids should start at home with some learner’s permit-style social media access supervised by a parent. And that includes helping kids understand and obey the Terms of Service social websites operate under.

Australian writer Kylie Ladd says that her 11-year-old daughter is allowed to use both Instagram and Kik under her supervision, despite the TOS for both sites requiring users to be 13+, a rule she seems to be aware she’s flaunting:

I absolutely agree that it’s important to be teaching pre-teens cyber-safety skills, and I also agree that unrestricted, unmonitored access to social media is a bad idea for kids who aren’t that far past having learned to tie their shoelaces. What I don’t agree with, however, is that it should be banned altogether until the magic age of 13, when the keys to the kingdom (or Facebook at least) are handed over.

I agree that no one should just let their 13-year-old make a Facebook on her birthday and then just walk away, no more than they should toss a newly minted 16-year-old the keys to the minivan and say, “Have fun!” But paying heed to the Terms of Service on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the rest is part of the learning that’s supposed to go on, and teaching kids that they’re above the rules because they really want to doesn’t do anyone any favors. The “no littles allowed” rule isn’t one that social media websites made up just to be mean, after all. The rule comes down from a federal law, COPPA, and social media sites take it seriously:

You have to be at least 13 years old to use Tumblr. We’re serious: it’s a hard rule, based on U.S. federal and state legislation. “But I’m, like, 12.9 years old!” you plead. Nope, sorry. If you’re younger than 13, don’t use Tumblr. Ask your parents for a Playstation 4, or try books.

Websites designed for kids under 13 to access social media exist: Kidzworld, Yoursphere, and others. They’re the training wheels of the social media world, and they’re monitored carefully to keep them safe and appropriate for the age set they’re marketed to. There is some nasty stuff on Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr (oh my god, Tumblr). Ladd mentions being taken aback by pictures of girls her son’s age in bikinis, but I’m pretty sure there are a few worse things out there than selfies. By all means, let your kids how use social media, supervise their use of it, and teach them how to do it safely. Would you teach your kid that it’s okay to pass in a no-passing zone if they think no one’s looking? Even if they really want to and the other kids are doing it? Then teach them how to use social media responsibly and age-appropriately.

(Image: Vladimir Nikitin/Shutterstock)