The year is 2002. The day is Sunday. I watch a few episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, then saunter to the garage. I awaken the family computer, a chunky Dell desktop. My juvenile fingers play the keyboard like a piano as I probe the internet. Curiosity and opportunity drive me to several websites that, because of their content, ask me to verify my age. One hundred and twenty-six years old, I indicate. In reality, I just turned 10.
Lying to online age checkers is a rite of passage for many youngsters: One survey found that more than 80 percent of children lie about their age while using social media, a phenomenon that some argue is damaging their development. In a 2014 study regarding internet use among children, psychologists and educators declare, “Engaging in these online social interactions prior to necessary cognitive and emotional development that occurs throughout middle childhood could lead to negative encounters or poor decision-making.”
Online age checkers obviously completely fail to prevent anyone, no matter how old, from barging on in, so long as they punch in the right numbers. “Age checkers are one of the internet’s dirty little secrets,” says Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World and founder of Cyberwise, a website dedicated to providing online safety advice. “It’s unlikely anyone ever checks to see if a user is being honest about his or her age. After all, how could they? Since there’s no such thing as ‘internet police,’ websites rely on users to be honest when answering questions regarding age. Just think of all the social media sites that are popular with kids, like Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and more — nearly all of them require users to be at least 13 years of age to sign up (due to COPPA, the law dealing with how websites and apps handle the personal information of children), yet ask just about any kid you know, and they’ll tell you that ‘everybody’ lies about their age and ‘nobody cares.’ Unfortunately, this is only too true.”
On numerous occasions, large social media companies have been questioned about the enormous underage presence on their platforms. They typically argue that identifying children on their websites — in part, by enforcing their age checkers — is an almost impossible undertaking and would require far too much manpower. Simon Milner, a senior executive at Facebook, told the Guardian that they have no “mechanism for eradicating the problem” in 2013. (In fairness, as of the first quarter of 2020, Facebook had more than 2.6 billion monthly active users, which is quite a lot to comb through.)
Nowadays, of course, many understand that this perception of online anonymity — especially the idea that online companies are unaware of their true user base — is both false and antiquated. The once-relatable 1993 New Yorker cartoon, which popularized the phrase, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” is now understood as largely untrue. On the internet, everybody knows you’re a dog, especially the companies collecting your personal information so they can eventually barrage you with targeted advertising. The world woke up to this when news broke of the scandal at Cambridge Analytica, and we see time and again that Twitter has the power to remove heaps of propaganda-pushing bots, but only when they really feel like it.
All of which is to say, if online companies like Facebook know enough about your kid to target them with Peppa Pig merchandise, they should know that your kid is lying about being 76 years old. The thing is, companies want kids on their websites; they want to thrust everyone they can into surveillance capitalism, so they can commodify their personal data and sell, sell, sell. They want to advertise, especially to young, impressionable visitors, and therefore, they have no real motivation to make sure that kids are being honest when they come across age checkers.
Until that changes, Graber says the onus is on parents to teach their children about honesty on the internet, as well as the dangers that come with being dishonest. “Unfortunately, we’ve somehow communicated to kids that it’s okay to lie online (even though many would hesitate to do so in real life),” she says. “When teaching Cyber Civics to students, one of the first things we talk about is how it’s the responsibility of all citizens to tell the truth, online and off. That comes as a surprise to many!”