There are so many ways to win the coveted parental “You’re ruining my life!” award. My current prize has been bestowed by my 11-year-old son, who desperately, passionately, and unceasingly desires Gmail, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
Like most parents, my husband and I fear his exposure to inappropriate content with which he is not yet equipped to deal, but our current concern precedes this more common one: we worry that, as all of these accounts require a minimum age of 13 in order to gain access, he would have to lie about his birth year.
Now, lying about a birthday may not feel like a very big deal. We know lots of people who fudge birth years, often to seem younger than they are, but, as we may recall from our college years, sometimes to seem older as well.
In our home, like in many others, a primary rule involves truth telling. “We’re proud of you for telling us the truth,” we’ve often repeated to our kids, even if it involves how Nutella ended up on the curtains. We make a point of living by this rule as well. We let them know from the beginning that we are the “tooth fairy,” and we answered certain questions in their younger years by saying, “You’re not ready to know the whole story about that just yet” rather than making up tales about, say, storks or cabbage patches.
Of course, we know there may be times when lying is tolerable. Our kids recognize, for instance, that the individuals who lied to shield slaves on the Underground Railroad were heroes and that those lies were based in the highest ethical principles.
But lying about your birthdate to get something forbidden that you want? That is precisely the kind of lying we aim to teach our children to avoid. This seems to be the minority opinion.
For some of my friends and acquaintances, deciding that their children are sufficiently mature makes them comfortable with entering a false birthdate or permitting their child to do so. Their primary concern is with their child’s readiness, not the company’s policies or the questions the child must answer. They treat minimum age policies more as guidelines – “children require a certain level of maturity, but mine is unusually mature” than as hard and fast rules, which makes the lying feel less dishonest. They believe they’re following the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule.
Others take a different tack, suggesting that because these companies know full well that some portion of their clientele is lying, the companies are complicit, and the lying is, therefore, acceptable. If the companies know we’re lying, “there is no ethical issue,” one acquaintance told me. Certainly these companies know that children can easily submit a false date. Their rationale for the minimum age is very likely a hedge against bad publicity and legal problems rather than a deep concern for the well-being of tweens. But does the company’s supposed, even likely, awareness justify the lie? For me, it does not. Teaching my son that lying is okay when someone anticipates that you might lie doesn’t feel like a solid foundation for future behavior.
Another acquaintance explained that this occasion raises the opportunity to discuss the difference between a “fib/white lie and an out and out lie.” She articulated her teaching this way: “it’s never okay to lie but sometimes you have to fib a bit.” Telling a child that sometimes “fibs” are necessary – in this case, to have access to a forbidden but desired commodity – makes me fear the unintended lessons that may follow: I worry about how to articulate where that line should be drawn if email or social media accounts fall on the side of “okay to lie about.”
Many others “work around” the age restriction by setting up accounts in their own names, with their own email addresses as the contact information and with their own birth dates. But the account is in the child’s name, and he thinks of it as his own, even as the parents have access to the password and can read all of the posts or messages. To me, this seems like the closest to an honest policy in that the account remains, nominally, at least, the property of the parent rather than the child. But I question whether this sends the wrong message as well. Figuring out how to subvert inconvenient rules feels discomfiting to me, if understandable.
I don’t think Gmail is inherently dangerous, and I don’t even think that my son would do anything bad on Instagram or Snapchat. I doubt he’d be exposed to anything worse there than he would be on the school bus or YouTube, which has no age minimum to view most content. I realize that, no matter what accounts he has or does not have, I have to monitor his online activity regularly and speak with him about safety as part on an ongoing conversation. I also realize that my agonizing over how I model and shape his behavior may have no consequence on his future decisions and that kids, with or without their parents’ influence, make independent choices.
But in not too many years, my 11-year-old will be 19, and adding two years on to a birthdate can mean the difference between buying alcohol and not buying it. And lying to get what you want can mean the difference between marital fidelity and adultery, or between honest business practices and insider trading or outright thievery. If I tell him now that he can lie to get what he wants, even if the thing that he wants feels silly, inconsequential, or ubiquitous, what message have I sent him with into the future and out into the world, into a marriage, into a profession?
By ruining his life now, I’m hoping to avoid his ruining it later.
Steinberg is a former professor who now teaches writing to high schoolers. She lives in New York.