What 12-year-olds do on social media

What 12-year-olds do on social media

We ask a panel of girls (and their parents) about Instagram, Facebook, Kik, Snapchat, and more

Published: October 17, 2014 01:00 PM

There’s been renewed chatter recently about how much time kids should spend in front of their digital devices, with one study finding that children who refrained were better at reading emotional cues in real life, and the revelation that Steve Jobs didn’t let his children use an iPad.

Social media services are of special concern for a lot of parents, and we decided to ask a bunch of 12-year-olds just how they are spending their time on networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. These services require users to be 13 years old to open an account, following a 1998 law called the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. But we knew that kids often bend the rules—and we wanted to see what they were up to online.

How did we find our panel?

Our subjects were 10 girls, chosen in a completely nonscientific manner: They happened to be gathered at a backyard party at a friends’ house. The methodology was simple: a round-table discussion around a fire pit on a Friday night. There were snacks.

(A note on demographics: “Actually, I’m 11,” Allie called out, “but I’m almost 12.” OK, that’s fine. “And I just turned 13!” Happy birthday, Julia. That’s fine, too.)

We also asked the kids for technology tips to share with the adults who read Consumer Reports. Finally, we checked in with their parents to get their reactions. 

What social media accounts do they use?

More than we expected—a lot more. In our sample, Instagram was the most popular social service; every kid had an account. All but one girl used Snapchat, six had Pinterest accounts, six had Vine accounts, six had YouTube accounts, five had Tumblr, and five had Kik accounts. Only two girls had Facebook accounts, and they used them mainly to communicate with their extended families.

Most of these sites require users to enter a birth date, and so the kids had presented false information when opening their accounts, which happens to be illegal under the broad terms of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. How old did they say they were? One girl said that she used 1990 as her default birth year. Several thought it was wise to appear more than 18 years old, and preferably at least 21.

When we contacted the parents later by e-mail, one mom said she hadn’t known about the age requirement. But other parents all had the same reason for letting their kids sign up early. This was a typical comment: “I decided to allow the early exposure while she was still in a non-rebellious state and open to my mentoring, so I could help her develop the skills she would need to act responsibly as a teenager and adult.” Parents said they carefully monitored their children’s posts and followers.

As for making themselves appear much older online, this was news to some of the parents who responded. “I can understand their thinking, but how awful that they recognize at 12 that they have to consider online dangers,” one parent wrote. “On the other hand, I would be interested in delving a little deeper into the child's reasoning as the reporting of adult status could be done for other non-acceptable reasons. I expect I will be asking each of my kids that question tonight.”

Their participation in Kik stood out. Kik is an instant messaging and social app that has exploded in popularity in the last year, and that makes it easy to share photos and webpages. The best thing about it, said one of our 12-year-old experts, is that unlike a standard text-messaging app, “You don’t need to give out your phone number to use it.” While that makes Kik feel safe to our panel, some parents are worried about its safety. None of our panelists reported having had any bad experiences online.

Finally, the kids are all required to do schoolwork, including group projects, using Google Docs. (COPPA has an exception for education.) In fact, homework is the major task for which they use desktop and laptop computers. YouTube consumption comes in second. For nearly everything else, the girls prefer their mobile devices.

For tips on keeping kids and parents safe online, read our guide to Internet security. And see what our readers think about whether (and how) parents should limit screen time for children.

What they do on Instagram

Since Instagram was the one account used by every girl on our panel, we wanted to know more about what they do on that network. “I have two accounts, a Disney fan account where I post every day, and then a personal account,” one of the girls said. Another power Instagram user in the group similarly used two accounts, and most of what she posted was fandom material. To me, a Consumer Reports electronics geek, it was heart-warmingly nerdy stuff: Avengers, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson (a fantasy series based on Greek mythology in which Mount Olympus is perched atop the Empire State Building).

The general rule was that the girls used public settings on their fandom accounts, but strong privacy settings for their personal accounts. So, we asked, who gets to follow your private account? “Only people I personally know,” Julia said. And how many followers do you have? “Five hundred fifty-seven,” she said.

Hmm, but that’s the size of your entire middle school—all three grades. How can you personally know that many people? “Well, a lot are friends of friends," she said. "If I don’t know them, I know they’re OK because other people know them. And some of them are from camp.” Parents said that they made sure they recognized the names of their daughter’s online friends. One thing to keep in mind, though: With networks that large, any information the kids post online may end up being distributed widely.

A lot of tech debate starts with the assumption that, like Pepsi and Doritos, social media is a bad thing for kids that might be OK in moderation. The parents we asked didn’t see it that way. “I think it is important for children to find their voice and be able to express themselves,” wrote one mom. “If using these types of media helps prepare them for the difficult days ahead [as they enter their teenage years] then I am a supporter.”

Besides, wrote another, the online world seems downright wholesome compared to, say, magazines. “I have one daughter who loves to follow pages about nail art, makeup design, fashion, etc.," she wrote. "I am actually happier with her looking at these little sites rather than reading fashion magazines that also have articles on how to flirt, what a guy likes best in a date, and ways to drive your guy crazy.”

Tweens’ advice for grown-ups

The age of the clueless adult looking to teenagers for tech advice may be fading—parents are generally more tech-savvy these days. Nevertheless, our panel of 12-year-olds did want their parents (and grandparents) to get a few things straight. And they have strong ideas about which services work best.

“They still think you can zoom in on Instagram photos," one girl said. "You can’t! Stop trying!”  

Another said: “My mom still uses Internet Explorer. Why? Why? Why?” (The group’s consensus browser choice was Chrome.)

 “Oovoo! Oovoo! Oovoo!” the group chanted, endorsing this video chat and messaging client in boisterous tandem and preferring it to competitors such as Apple FaceTime, Google Chat, and Skype. One girl said she’d pulled in up to eight people in one chat, and the girls liked the fact that you could see multiple people at once on a mobile-device screen. One parent agreed that the service was invaluable for her daughter’s school group projects.

There were more pet peeves. For one, parents who use SnapChat—that’s embarrassing. Two, parents who can’t switch between Apple TV, regular TV, gaming consoles, etc. (“You just have to switch inputs—it’s really not that hard” one girl said, to general agreement.) Three, parents who do excessive online stalking. “I had a crush on this guy, and my parents looked up his last name on Facebook and stalked his parents," one girl said. "It was so creepy.”

To which I say: Sorry, kid. As the e-mail respondents told us, that’s what moms are for.

—Jerry Beilinson

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