Background Information

Online social networks are a big hit with children and young people. It’s where they make new contacts, maintain friendships and organize meet ups. Such platforms make it easy for them to share their own pictures, videos and texts with their entire circle of friends and beyond.
The current KIM Study shows how important these networks, like Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, are for children and adolescents: 70 percent of 12- to 13-year-olds are on social networks. And they start early: 7 percent of 6- to 7-year-olds already have their own profiles.
Particularly attractive to young people
The communication possibilities these networks offer are especially attractive to young people. Networks are tools for representing their personalities and themselves, which they can redefine with just a couple of clicks. Interaction with others plays a very important role here. Exploring who they are and who they want to be is what adolescence is all about. Very quickly, one can build up a huge circle of friends to share funny pictures, videos and news with each other. For instance, there are many YouTube channels that are dedicated to showing embarrassing accidents, big and small, that can be shared to a WhatsApp group with one click. A lot of what is called “trash talk” also goes on in these groups as a means of everyday conversation, which may fly under the radar of most adults. Nowadays one way to do so is with abbreviations, like “S’up” for “What is up?” and the like. Overall, the functions of social networks connect directly to the children’s interests.
The most popular social networks
Social networks are constantly changing. A network that is totally unknown today could become the absolute hit by next year. Existing networks also lose their appeal or change their functionality. The social networks that are currently especially popular with children and young people are (in alphabetical order):
ASKfm is a social network where users ask and answer each others’ questions. To ask a question, the user must sign up for an account but can remain anonymous when posting the question. Registered users can specify in their profiles if they wish to receive anonymous questions or not. The network was developed in Latvia in 2010. Now it is run from Dublin, Ireland.
Facebook is the largest social network in the world with its 1.5 billion active users. The US-based platform allows users to create profiles for private persons, companies or interest groups who then all network among each other through “friending.” The company operates its own messaging service, Facebook Messenger.
Instagram is a free app for taking pictures and recording videos. Instagram users share their content over the network and make their it accessible to others. Originally launched as a mixture between a blog and an audiovisual platform, Instagram today also has a messaging service, InstaMessage, that allows users to chat via smartphone or tablet. Since September, 2012, Instagram has belonged to Facebook.
Snapchat is a messaging service from the United States where photos and videos can be sent to contacts. The receiver can only see the message for a short time, then the message “self-destructs.” The “self-destruct” can be prevented, however, so that the shared pictures and videos can be kept and shared further. Snapchat also has an app called SnapKidz for children under 13. It allows kids to take photos and edit them, but not send them.
WhatsApp is a messaging service for smartphones that is very wide spread globally. This application allows for the exchange of text messages, images, video and sound files, as well as user location information. Users can create groups and engage in conversation all together. WhatsApp was created originally for sending messages. Nowadays it functions as its own social network: Users can create groups and engage in conversation all together. WhatsApp belongs to the American company Facebook.
YouNow is another American online platform where users can broadcast themselves live to other users, who can simultaneously chat. Usually the spectators ask questions and the “YouNower” responds. These videos often offer a deep look into a user’s private life.
YouTube is a popular video portal that allows logged-in users to upload video clips and share them with others. Members have the opportunity to comment on videos and send messages to other users who operate their own YouTube channels. For children and young people, YouTube is increasingly replacing the television set. So-called YouTube stars sometimes rise to prominence among their youthful target audience.
These various social networks have one thing in common: They all have terms of service that refer to a minimum age for users. Most social networks require a minimum age of 13. This limitation is based for one on regulations that apply in the USA, the country of origin for many social networks. The US Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits the storage private information for children age 13 and under.
The information regarding minimum ages is not always very clear and sometimes leaves room for interpretation. One example: The minimum age required for a Google account is 13. A Google account automatically allows users access to YouTube. But the video platform’s terms of service specify that a user “must have the required age for entering into a binding contract.” The required age in Germany is 18 and thus a whole five years older than the minimum age.

So, while the information on minimum age for users is not always complete, this is precisely why it’s so important to look into it. Why is storing personal data about children under 13 illegal in the United States? Why is WhatsApp’s minimum age 13? What does the minimum age mean in terms of other age limits, like driving a car or drinking alcohol or the right to vote? Thinking about these and similar questions leads to intriguing starting points for exchange between young media users and adults.