All children require our care, attention, and guidance until they have the maturity to navigate on their own; through daily life, a shopping mall, a forest, or the virtual landscape. The media histronics over potential abuse of children through social networking makes great copy but little sense, and arguably those individuals who are using the internet this way are drawing attention away from the real problem – attentive care and concern for the younger members of our society.
Social networking sites are corporations, non-profit organizations, or individuals, meaning that they can all be named in criminal and civil law suits. They have age limits because they have a duty of care to people who use their site and particularly to those who are under the age of majority. Judgements against these sites that involve the victimisation of children are likely to be larger than those involving adults. For legal reasons, there must be a lower age limit on social networking sites.
There are plenty of people in the world who are making the same mistakes as children who are not afforded that same protection. People who willingly send money overseas to scam artists promising great riches for tiny investments are arguably just as in need of protection as children, many of whom are far wiser to cybertheives than adults.
The Real Me
Much has been made of the potential for people to post a profile and project a persona radically different from their real life, and some do use false information to gain access to underage victims. They will go to the sites that are attractive to their prey and change their a/s/l (age, sex, location) to fit in to the peer group. However, studies show overwhelmingly that most young people use the internet to maintain contact with their existing friends, rather than looking to make new connections.
Any young person out there desperately searching for real relationships on the internet is likely to be experiencing difficulty in creating those relationships in real life. Just like adults, some children fall out of the “normal” human interaction simply because they do not think or talk the same way as the majority of the people around them. People with very specialized interests may be able to find their community for the first time once they have the whole world to interact with. In these cases, the lower limits on age have the undesirable effect of excluding some young people who may feel an urgent need to connect to like-minded communities. However, it is just this desperation that makes all people – young and old – vulnerable to internet predators of all kinds.
The age limits protect the providers, not the users, who will find ways around them or engage in other high-risk behaviour to get the validation they need. To really protect the users of social networking groups, we need to treat all members of our communities with respect and love that allows them to feel secure and accepted.