There was a time when 10 year-olds tended to hang out with other 10 year-olds. Likewise for 12 year-olds. And 14 year-olds. A 10 year-old hanging out with a 17 year-old? Didn’t happen. Now that has changed.
In today’s digital world, with 95% of teens having internet access, 90% using social media and close to 80% having a smartphone, age as a qualifier for both joining in and choosing a peer group has become optional to say the least.
Unless he possesses extraordinary intelligence and perhaps a similar maturity level, a teen needs to be at least 13 to get into high school. Most people can agree that the maturity level required to function at a high school level is markedly higher than is the case in middle school.
There is essentially no age or maturity threshold for entering the smartphone and social media world, unless a parent imposes one. In reality, parents routinely give kids a smartphone or internet enabled iPod or other device at 7 or 8 or years old (your experience may be different), and tween use of these devices is frequently unsupervised. Membership to any social network is available to anyone with an internet connection, an email address and a willingness to lie about one’s age. It’s that simple.
Make no mistake – while most networks and apps have a stated age limit, they are in the business of attracting new users and most will only deny a new user based on age under a very narrow set of circumstances.
Choosing a Peer Group
Let’s leave Facebook aside for a moment, where real names and identities are still most common use case, and parents tend to see at least some of what kids are up to. Once a tween has signed up for a network or app, the peer group or community of friends that he chooses is strictly user-determined. On the internet, nobody know how old you are. Other than parents, most people don’t care.
A 12 year-old on Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or Ask.fm can choose to follow or interact with anyone with a public account, regardless of the age of either party.
Let’s say that your tween is interested in humor, or professional sports, or Call of Duty. It is easy for him to seek out users with common interests and engage as he pleases.
In doing so, tweens are almost certain to view and interact with content and commentary that was created by, and intended for older users.
Growing Up Faster (Too Fast?)
In following the course of action outlined above, which is not at all uncommon in our experience, tweens are likely to witness things like pornography, cyberbullying, harassment or posting borderline inappropriate selfies.
This is happening in many cases at an earlier age than parents would think appropriate, and than would have been possible absent the smartphone/social media environment in which they now operate.
The adult nature of the content is only one problem. The other is the risk that the tween will view what he is seeing as normal, and perhaps even join in. What’s normal for an 18 year-old could be profoundly taboo for a 10 year-old. In the case of cyberbullying, sexting and harassment, the results can be devastating, both for the victim and your tween.
If you are parent whose tween has a connected device and unsupervised internet access, it is up to you to decide the boundaries of acceptable use, and ensure that your tween is not growing up too fast. This starts with having knowledge of which apps he has downloaded, which social networks he is using and what types of people he is interacting with. If your strategy to date has been to hope for the best, catching up can be daunting task. For parents looking to get up to speed quickly, engaging with ThirdParent can give you a clear picture of what your tween is up to online, and what corrective actions need to be taken. It’s not to late to become more involved.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.