Lack of good data on how children under 13 use social networking sites (SNS) is an enormous problem, according to “Kids Online,” a report issued by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Before experts can effectively design, assess and manage SNSs for kids, the report says, they need to examine kids’ habits more closely.
Citing the National School Boards Association study (2007), the report points out that although about half of school districts forbid SNS use during the school day, there is still a great deal of “officially sanctioned, educationally packaged social networking occurring in schools.”
Furthermore, “since children are generally excluded from participating directly in public life, it is worth highlighting the significant opportunities that kids are given by social networking and other online forums to collaborate in the creation of shared cultural texts,” the report says. In other words, SNSs are of great interest to educators, both formally and informally.
One stumbling block, according to “Kids Online,” is that tracking of youth SNS use focuses heavily on teens, and applying teen data to SNS habits of younger children is ineffective.
Children under 13 use SNS less and also differently than teens. While older kids tend to engage with mainstream, adult social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), younger ones are more likely to network while playing games, exploring virtual worlds, or creating and sharing projects.
Because of this, the report advocates mindfulness of “the paradoxical fact that although younger children are often excluded from actual research studies, they are nevertheless evoked in news coverage of ‘kids and social networking’ trends.” This type of coverage, in turn, influences policy decisions. “Panic reporting” (e.g. on bullying) further obscures more nuanced conversations about child SNS-use, according to the report.
Many typical SNS (such as Facebook) now turn away younger users rather than face the challenges of complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires “verifiable parental consent” for websites that collect data from children under 13. As the report notes, these restrictions may be “just as much about policy compliance as age appropriateness.”
The result is that younger children create fraudulent accounts by lying about their age, or are simply excluded: “Some scholars argue that although COPPA was originally introduced to protect and foster children’s participation in online culture, it has also had the unintended consequence of officially closing off vast swaths of the Internet from younger children,” the report says. Kids who lie about their age remain invisible to tracking.
Sites aimed at the under-13 set are often neglected in research studies and vary widely in quality, the report concludes, with the pessimistic note that “evidence is growing that many of the virtual worlds for children that are currently available are impoverished compared to those for teens and adults… the comparable worlds designed for children often provide much more limited, homogenous texts, contain fewer affordances and action opportunities, and even promote bad grammar because of word filters.”