Internet Age Restrictions: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

Internet Age Restrictions: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

Internet Age Limit
© Veronica Louro/

My 9 year old thinks he is really slick. Or perhaps he thinks I am too busy juggling work, family life, homework, household realities and community work to understand what’s going on. Or maybe, just maybe, he really doesn’t understand what an e-Safety consultant / lawyer-mommy / Digital Parenting Coach does for a living. It’s enough to make me want to do my best Scandal impression, complete with sofa, white cardigan, popcorn and red wine.

So what brought all that on? My 9 year old is jonesing for a smartphone. And a YouTube account. And an Instagram account. And a Facebook account. And whatever else he hears everyone else clamoring on about.

Internet Age Restrictions

Saying “Not yet” is OK

I have explained to him: “Not yet”, in terms that I think he now understands. I told him simply that he has to wait. He has to grow up a bit. Age restrictions exist for a reason and they are not to DEPRIVE him but to make sure that he THRIVES when he does hit that magical age and he “gets it.” I softened the blow using an example from his world.

He is a Cub Scout and I explained that every year Cub Scouts have activities to do, things to learn, before they can achieve the next rank. Imagine if every 6-year old started Cub Scouts and said “Yeah, that’s cool, but I want to be a Boy Scout, or better yet an Eagle Scout. Suit me up and don’t forget all those cool badges.” Luckily, he understood that example – until the next time, when his friends start talking about virtual reality headsets.

But this isn’t just about my son, this is about YOUR sons and daughters under the age of 13. Please think of my Cub Scout/Girl Scout example, or invent your own to explain to your children why all of those fabulous, tasty online treats are really not made for them. Not yet. Waiting is a good thing. Anticipation is a great thing.

© Brian A Jackson/
© Brian A Jackson/

Delayed Gratification Pays Off

Delayed gratification has been studied and studied. The Marshmallow experiment showed that after 40 years of research, the children who were able to delay gratification and who waited to receive a second marshmallow as opposed to one marshmallow immediately, ended up having higher exam scores, lower levels of substance abuse and lower likelihood of obesity. Additionally, they showed evidence of better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.

Don’t believe me? Still prefer to just get it over with, give the gadget and get some peace and quiet? (I completely get you: when your child just won’t stop asking about the latest gadget that is a MUST. I get it, I really do. But you can say NO and for things with age restrictions, you really should.)

Research has proven that children under 13 don’t have the mental capacity to make smart decisions online.

Internet Age Restrictions
© Arina P Habich/

“Just because kids seem tech-savvy at increasingly younger ages, doesn’t necessarily mean that their brains are developing at the same rate as their digital acumen,” says Diana Graber, Cyberwise.

“Research shows that it takes children about 12 years to fully develop the cognitive structures that enable them to engage in ethical thinking. Before 12 it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a child to fully grasp the impact of their actions upon others, online or otherwise.”

– Diana Graber, Cyberwise


Children Are Still Children

Graber continues: “Yet young children are increasingly joining social networking sites, sometimes even putting themselves in harm’s way by becoming victims of online harassment, solicitation, and cyber-bullying before they are ready to respond appropriately.”

Cognitive development in 11-13 year olds is still a work in progress. Your brilliant children are able to do and achieve great things, but please remember that they do not have the same capacity as an adult to immediately grasp the implications of online issues. And for those under 11, they do not always display responsible digital citizenship behavior because let’s face it, they are still learning how to be regular ol’ law-abiding citizens.

But, you counter: “Everyone is doing it. Lots of young kids have accounts.” Yes, I agree. More than three-quarters of children aged 10-12 in the UK have social media accounts even though they are under the age limit. Academics and child protection experts in the UK are looking at the US COPPA law (see below), and wondering what they can use to their benefit to protect those under-age children.

Internet Age Restriction

Authorities Can Only Protect Your Child With Your Help

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act(COPPA) protects the online privacy of every child under the age of 13. As explained by the US government, the primary goal of COPPA is to place parents in control over what information is collected from their young children online. But get this parents: COPPA can’t protect your child if she is 8 and claims that she is 13. If a social media account is created for a child under the age of 13, the social networks can collect and share your child’s personal information with third party advertisers. Want to learn more? Check out this parent guide on COPPA from the Center for Digital Democracy.

You wouldn’t let your child fudge his age to get a driver’s license, so why do so for a social media account?

Social Media Age Restrictions 

For a quick refresher course on age restrictions, please click on the links below for parental reviews by Common Sense Media with their recommended age for use.

internet age restrictions
Infographic courtesy of author

Blah, blah, blah you say. But MY child is different. Okay, we’re good. But consider this, the age 13 restrictions were created to PROTECT your child from marketers, to protect your children from underdeveloped cognitive reasoning skills, to protect your child until s/he is emotionally resilient enough to bounce back from some of the online ickiness that will inevitably occur.

4 Key Digital Parenting Take-aways

I won’t bang you over the head with it; and I am so not into “Parent Shaming”, so let’s take a peek at some Digital Parenting take-aways:

  • If you can’t say no to your young child, then check out some of the safe alternatives designed for younger users: Club Penguin, WebKinz, and Whyville. But remember, you still need to set up restrictions and privacy settings.
  • If you do sign your child up for an under-age account or find out that s/he has an account, make sure that you lay out the rules for use. Check out this forum where parents give each other tips on how to keep a 9-year-old safe on YouTube.
  • You know your own child best. You know their level of maturity and understanding. If your 12-year old can post flower pictures on Instagram without any repercussions, then by all means, continue to beautify the Net. But if that 11-year old thinks that armpit shots (insert something more intimate as this is a family online magazine after all) are all the rage, perhaps you can hold off a bit.
  • Whatever social media sites and apps your children are using, please explain the concept of digital footprints and digital reputation. What happens on the Net, stays on the Net – even if certain sites promise to make messages disappear. People can take screenshots or take videos of videos or make other types of recordings to capture your child’s nonsense and replay it – forever.

Internet Age Restrictions

Last thought: you are the digital role model, so be sure of your message on age restrictions. I hope I have given you food for thought as well as counter-arguments for your little negotiators. Now if you will excuse me, I need to go and explain to my little negotiator, why he really does NOT need an iPhone 6 plus (or any other type for that matter.)

Elizabeth is an international speaker on Internet safety issues, leads parental workshops, writes on digital parenting, and coaches parents on best practices in the digital age. She is a consultant for the Council of Europe, Microsoft, UNICEF, Family Online Safety Institute, and e-Enfance, as well as a contributor to Internet Matters, UK Safer Internet Centre, and many other key actors in online child protection. She has several guides and workbooks on parenting in the digital age available on Amazon and she co-wrote several publications for the Council of Europe, including the Internet Literacy Handbook and the Digital Citizenship Education Handbook.



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