Gen Zers have the unique experience of growing up with social media platforms, like Instagram, since early in their lives. But how old are most users when they join these platforms? According to a 2016 Common Sense Media poll, 56 percent of children aged 8 to 18 in the United States have their own social media accounts. Furthermore, 23 percent of 8 to 12-year-olds have their own social media accounts. How can this be? If social media platforms have age restrictions, banning users under 13, how are so many children slipping through the cracks?
Let me reflect on my personal experience of using social media at a young age to answer this question. I was in fifth grade when many of my classmates began to download Instagram. Initially, I was reluctant to create an account. But, as many victims of peer pressure can predict, I ultimately gave in and created a profile. It should have been impossible to create an account at 11 years old, as Instagram requires users to be 13 or older. How was I able to make one easily? When I joined Instagram in 2014, it was incredibly easy to avoid their flimsy age restrictions and enter the lawless world of social media. Perhaps the strongest roadblock for me was a box to check stating I was at least 13. Nowadays, Instagram requires a full date of birth to create an account. While this poses more of a challenge than checking off a box, it is still incredibly easy for children to lie about their age.
Why is this a problem? Social media can be a great way for teens to stay connected with friends and family, express themselves and connect with their community. However, social media poses many potential dangers for users, particularly those who are underage. High levels of social media usage are linked to teenage depression and anxiety. Teens are at risk of being exposed to harmful and inappropriate content, such as sex, drugs and violence. By seeing this content normalized and glamorized on the internet, teens become desensitized to harmful behavior and ideologies. Teenagers who regularly use social media are more likely to be exposed to dangerous people and to experience cyberbullying, as well as more likely to participate in underage drinking, drug use and the purchase of tobacco products. The mindset of comparison and approval-seeking that social media cultivates is also bound to cause body image issues and low self-esteem.
The permanence of social media posts also has a notable impact on teens. It is challenging for young users to comprehend the long-lasting impact their actions on social media can have on their lives. Serving as a computerized history book, actions on social media can be referred to years later. We have already seen this countless times when celebrities and political figures release apology statements after old social media posts resurface and are used against them. How can a tween understand the potential consequences of their online actions? These impacts are harmful enough for users aged 13 and older, let alone those under the required age.
You may wonder why a 13-year-old can download Instagram but a 10-year-old cannot. During these core developmental years, there is a big difference in maturity and their mental and emotional capacity to deal with the downsides of social media. Younger children are much more impressionable than teenagers, and exposure to inappropriate content at a young age can pose a high safety risk and impact psychological development. This includes mental and emotional damage, negative behavioral changes, experimental drinking or smoking at a young age and heightened anxiety.
While age restrictions cannot make the problems associated with social media disappear, they lessen some harm. Though age restrictions do not eradicate harmful impacts on teens, they can prevent younger, more impressionable children from falling victim to these harms. To protect underage children, social media companies must utilize stricter policies. For example, companies could implement technology that recognizes underage users by identifying keywords that indicate their age, such as birthday posts or shoutouts. Platforms could also introduce kid-friendly versions of their app, which would be removed from accounts after the user turns 18 to ensure content is age-appropriate. Instagram’s CEO has suggested a system in which parents would indicate their child’s age to their child’s phone, instead of allowing apps to decipher their age. Age restrictions are a step in the right direction to keep children safe in a world where social media usage begins at progressively younger ages. Until companies utilize stricter policies to deter underage users, young children are at risk of the harmful impacts social media has on well-being.
Molly Rudden is a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law.