At 13, kids are still more than a decade from having a fully developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in decision-making and impulse control. And yet parents and educators unleash them on the internet at that age—if not before—because they’re told children in the U.S. must be at least 13 to download certain apps, create email accounts and sign up for social media.
Parents might think of the age-13 requirement as a PG-13 movie rating: Kids might encounter a bit more violence and foul language but nothing that will scar them for life. But this isn’t an age restriction based on content. Tech companies are just abiding by a 1998 law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was intended to protect the privacy of children ages 12 or under. It’s meant to keep companies from collecting and disseminating children’s personal information. But it has inadvertently caused 13 to become imprinted on many parents’ psyches as an acceptable age of internet adulthood.
Researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society interviewed families around the country over five years and found that they believed that websites’ age requirement was a safety warning.
“Across the board, parents and youth misinterpret the age requirements that emerged from the implementation of COPPA,” the researchers wrote. “Except for the most educated and technologically savvy, they are completely unaware that these restrictions have anything to do with privacy.”