Teaching underage kids to access social media an ethically dubious exercise

December 21, 2022 | 06:25 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
Hoang, a colleague who also researches education and media, got very confused recently about his seventh grade son’s homework.

The son had to create a social media account for his course on information technology. As he followed the steps in the textbook, he was not able to register because of the age limit on social media sites.

After Hoang’s son reported this to his course instructor, the teacher guided students to lie about their age just for the sake of creating an account. This instruction was later passed on to every other student in the course, all underage for using social media.

As a parent, Hoang did not know how to feel about the teacher’s instructions. Though educating children about cyberspace is a must, protecting them from what’s out there in the Internet of things is a tough problem for both parents and educators.

Major social media giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter impose an age limit of 13 on users, according to America’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. The law dictates that children under 13 should in no way have their digital data collected. The law has been welcomed by both families and experts; and there is a movement asking that the bar be raised to include slightly older children as well.

In Vietnam, there is no clear guidance on the minimum age for using digital products. Nevertheless, children under 16 are protected under the Children’s Law (2016) and Digital Space Law (2018).

Legally, children should not have their data collected by any social media conglomerate. Nevertheless, as these companies continue to make money out of users’ data and given weak implementation of the law in Vietnam, children still face tremendous risks of data privacy breaches in cyberspace.

From an educational perspective, authors of such textbooks used in Hoang's son's school are approaching the issue of social media with a creative mindset. They are including essential knowledge of social media and the Internet in the curriculum.

However, the authors do not seem to have spent enough time seeing things from the children’s perspective in designing appropriate exercises.

Children should definitely be taught how to use the Internet, but not how to create a social media account meant for adults, for instance. In France, primary school students are taught how to create an account, protect their information security and navigate through internet sites through the school’s internal education network. These are appropriate, protected spaces where children can explore the Internet without prying eyes.

Furthermore, the textbook writers do not seem to have placed themselves in the shoes of many "educators" who apparently want to find the easiest solution for themselves without considering the overall impact it would have on students. This situation stems from the lack of educational standards and guidelines in the Vietnamese education sector.

From the perspective of parents, I wonder how many educated parents can approach social media education in an appropriate manner. Nowadays, many parents grant their children free usage of smartphones and tablets, leading to under-aged kids roaming through mass social media sites like Facebook, TikTok, or YouTube completely unsupervised by adults.

In this context, parents might not see anything amiss or abnormal in a teacher instructing kids to lie about their age to access social media. Furthermore, many parents, even if they find such instructions inappropriate, shy away from confrontation, allowing ethical lapses in the education process.

If one day, children face discrimination, cyber-bullying, fraud or other harmful problems caused by social media, who will bear the brunt of the consequences?

We should seriously consider the possibility that if we let children unsupervised in potentially dangerous spaces, we could be destroying the future of our children.

I hope society as a whole speaks up about such issues, especially agencies tasked with protecting the rights of children. The time for intervention and correction is now, not after some unfortunate incident happens.

*Doctor Vo Nhat Vinh is a researcher and a specialist in education and media studies.

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