This is the third of a series about Social Media, taking a look at the advantages and the pitfalls for kids. It is important that we parents know why our kids want to use Social Media, and what advantages there are in knowing how to use it – and use it safely. Today, we move on to find out what parents need to know about Twitter.
If you haven’t already – do read my article on Keeping Kids Safe Online – dealing with parental controls and blocks.
Rules and Regulations of Twitter
As I mentioned in my post on Facebook, there is a common misconception that children under 13 years are legally banned from using Facebook and Twitter, but this is misleading. The truth is that companies would have to introduce extra checks and measures to ensure that their users are complying with COPPA, and for most of them it is simpler to say ‘No kids allowed’.
Twitter’s lower age limit is 13 years old, in compliance of COPPA. They have also introduced an age screening requirement, for those over 13 years but under legal drinking age, so that brands can block underage users from following them. It goes without saying, that a teen could easily get around that by entering a different date of birth.
If a user is reported to Twitter as being under the age of 13 years, they will close the account, as in their terms and conditions.
Why Your Child Wants to Use Twitter
Twitter is a fast-moving information highway which can be used in many different ways. Some users, particularly young users, will follow their ‘clique’ and use Twitter to chat and arrange meetings and events. Others will use it to follow their favourite singer, television personality or actor. Perhaps they will tweet their idol, and if they are incredibly lucky, they might even get a reply. Obviously, the chance of them getting a reply if they follow Justin Bieber is a great deal lower, than if they tweet a local celebrity or footballer!
For kids with specific hobbies and interests, particularly when these interests are not mainstream, Twitter can be a wonderful way to connect to others. The kid who loves to code can follow @codeclub and find out where the next Game Jam is being held. The child who is interested in politics can discuss issues with others, both adults and their peers. Bookworms can share their love of books, like Amber does on her highly successful review blog MileLongBookShelf and tweet to her friends and followers. Without Twitter, Jump! Mag would not have found Ailsa, and without Twitter, Ailsa would find it much more difficult to pursue her dream of being a sport journalist.
Twitter is a brilliant tool for connecting people around the world to talk about all sorts of issues and topics. You may have seen the usage of the ‘hashtag’ increase in recent years. The # is a simple way of collating information on a specific topic. User watch a programme on TV, eg Great British Bakeoff, and include the #GBBO2014. Other Twitter users can search for anyone using the same hashtag, and join in the conversation. Instead of only speaking to people on your own timeline, you are suddenly chatting to a person you have never met before, based purely on your interest in the same programme or world event.
The 140 character limit of a tweet may seem odd, but it is really great training for writers. You can’t waffle on Twitter, and condensing a complex idea into a tweet can be tricky. The publishers Penguin asked their followers to tweet a Love Story in a Tweet, with very amusing results.
It is a great way of developing critical assessment skills – teach your child to look more closely at the news stories shared, and to fact check them with other sources. Open your mind to both sides of a debate, and listen to those whose opinions you would otherwise not read. Step outside your little Twitter ‘echochamber‘ and listen to all the voices, not just the ones you agree with.
It is far more useful that a way to share what you had for breakfast – as the tabloid often dismiss Twitter. And far more fun!
What You Should Warn Your Child About Twitter
The big names in Twitter – such as Bieber, Will.i.am, Kayne West – have millions of followers, so do make sure that your child is aware that the chance of them striking up a conversation with them is low. Doesn’t mean that they won’t get a reply, but they shouldn’t expect it. Which doesn’t mean to say that no one monitors the tweets directed at them, so your child should know that it is unacceptable to tweet abuse or nasty comments.
This obviously applies to all Twitter users, not just the famous ones. Make sure that your child is aware of the dangers of being abusive online. You may not think that your little cherub would do such a thing, but when one feels so anonymous in a huge site such as Twitter, it is easy be lured into a sense of invisibility. You can say things that you wouldn’t normally dream of saying, if the person was sitting opposite.
The consequences of being abusive on Twitter go far beyond the account being shut down or suspended, as the people who tweeted feminist activist Caroline Criando Perez found to their horror. Even without prosecution, the damage to the reputation can be long-lasting.
This extends beyond being abusive, into the potential minefields of over-sharing and being generally offensive online. They are the first of the ‘Social Media Generation’ and need to understand that their actions when they are teenagers may have far reaching consequences, eg when applying for a job or a college/uni course. A good rule of thumb is the ‘Granny Rule’ – is this something that you would be happy sharing or saying to your grandmother? If not, don’t tweet it!
Of course abuse goes both ways, and there is a fair chance that your child could be on the receiving end of abuse. The language on Twitter can be salty, and sexually explicit threats are an issue. Teach your child that sometimes a retreat from an escalating conversation is better, but that they should not tolerate abuse. They should know how to block and report abusive comments. It is a good idea to run through this with them before allowing them to use the site. They should also feel that they can come and talk to you about any problems they are having on the site, so reassure them that you will help. Don’t react by threatening to make them stop using the site, as this may lead them to go ‘underground’ and set up an account you don’t know about.
Sharing pictures and videos on Twitter is encouraged, and sometimes abused by users who upload porn or share offensive content. There is a fair amount of spam – weird accounts that have no followers, who tweet dodgy links at users in the hope that they will open them. Sometimes the pics on the spam profiles are pornographic, so make sure that your child knows how to block these accounts.
You can block the picture preview when using Twitter on a smartphone, which is something that I would recommend. Some users are careless when sharing pictures of graphic content – I switched this function on for a few hours in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, as people were sharing quite shocking photos of injured runners and spectators.
Your child can limit the danger of abuse by setting their account to PRIVATE so that only people that they approve can follow them. This doesn’t affect the users that they follow, who can still share content that your child might not wish to view. Even if you were to allow your child to follow certain accounts, you cannot control what these users reshare (retweet) from their followers.
The Bottom Line
Personally, I would be reluctant to allow my children on Twitter until they are around 14 or 15 years old, due to the extremely open nature of the site. The user is not in control of what pops up on his screen, and once seen an image can’t be unseen. In comparison to sites such as Pinterest or Instagram, more content of a disturbing or adult nature is shared.
A private account is one way of limiting who can contact your child, but to be honest, I find they take the fun out of Twitter.
Twitter is a great way of connecting with people from all around the world. I’ve had conversations and discussions with people I would never normally come across. In business, it can be extremely helpful, and with ever more companies using Twitter to communicate with their staff, it is a useful skill to have. Twitter is brilliant for staying up-to-date, but caution needs to be applied as rumours are rife.