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Current version of the Public Network Terms of Service (accessed 2021-02-13) includes a section about underage users:

3. Age Eligibility

You must be at least 13 years old to access or use the Network or Services, including without limitation to complete a Stack Overflow account registration. By accessing or using the Services or the Network in any manner, you represent and warrant that you are at least 13 years of age. If you are under 13 years old, you may not, under any circumstances or for any reason, access or use the Services or Network in any manner, and may not provide any personal information to or on the Services or Network (including, for example, a name, address, telephone number or email address).

If you are located within the European Union, you must be at least 16 years old to access or use the Network or Services, including without limitation to complete a Stack Overflow Account Registration. By accessing or using the Services or the Network in any manner, you represent and warrant that you are at least 16 years of age. If you are under 16 years old, you may not, under any circumstances or for any reason, access or use the Services or Network in any manner, and may not provide any personal information to or on the Services or Network (including, for example, a name, address, telephone number or email address).

From the context it's clear that the section and the numbers therein refer to chronological age. However, does it also apply to physiological/biological age or mental age in particular?

For example, what if there is no solid data on user's chronological age, but the post clearly shows indirect pointers of underdevelopment such as (the list is not exhaustive):

  • erroneous principal logic;
  • lack of understanding of causal relationships;
  • inconsistent/wrong punctuation;
  • inconsistent/wrong capitalization;
  • numerous typos;
  • abusive CAPS;
  • excessive emojis and so on?

Would such an illiterately written post be a sign of an underage user, assuming that by the age of thirteen people in most educational systems already mastered the rudimentary skills of written communication and do not make the aforementioned listed mistakes?

Shall the answer be positive, should moderators report such users as possibly underage ones?

P.S. I don't ask about posts with a couple of typos, minor grammar issues or lack of knowledge in MathJax. I'm asking about severe cases of really disastrous posts and OPs ignoring not only site's guidelines, but also common sense.

P.P.S. Since I'm using rather strong adjectives, I'd prefer not to include any particular examples hoping the community is aware of posts like this.

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    In most cases, it is not due to a lack of skills. They write deliberately this way. We can only speculate as to why. Feb 14, 2021 at 14:33
  • I'm flagging this question as rude or abusive because it is. Feb 14, 2021 at 16:11
  • @RobertColumbia Thank you for letting me know. I'm sorry you think so. Yes, this is not the easiest topic for discussion, but it seems to me that I spoke quite competently and did not specifically attack anyone. Sweeping deliberately illiterate posting under the rug by closing questions like this doesn't seem like a good solution though.
    – andselisk
    Feb 14, 2021 at 16:27
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    It's insulting to people who may not be fluent in English, including those who are illiterate, to claim they're mentally below the age of 13.
    – Ryan M
    Feb 14, 2021 at 23:02
  • @RyanM How is it insulting towards someone who writes something like "HELP!!! asap wats the NUMber of atonz in h20 malecul..., Thx guyzzz Urrgant PLZ replY FASTπŸ™πŸ™πŸ˜πŸ†" and not vice versa? If anything, it's the reader who should feel offended by reading this, and it does look like something composed by an underage user to me. Besides, what's the point of continuous search to be offended? If someone objectively points out that I'm illiterate in a certain area, I'd be grateful and I will try to improve my skillset instead of calling this person rude.
    – andselisk
    Feb 15, 2021 at 17:39
  • I've reviewed thousands of Stack Exchange posts and cast nearly 13,000 close votes. I've seen plenty of incomprehensible posts, but I've never seen a post as bad as your example. Your post lists "inconsistent/wrong punctuation," "inconsistent/wrong capitalization," and "numerous typos" as "pointers of underdevelopment" when they could just as easily be lack of education in English specifically (or, as Tinkerbell notes, dyslexia). I've even seen quality contributors make "numerous typos"β€”maybe they're too busy writing more answers to proofread.
    – Ryan M
    Feb 16, 2021 at 0:21
  • If people are truly writing posts as intentionally bad as your example, there's no need blame it on the user's "mental age." Just suspend them for low-quality/abusive contributions.
    – Ryan M
    Feb 16, 2021 at 0:22

4 Answers 4

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Legal age. All those minimal age requirements are meant to enable SE to comply to laws like COPPA and the equivalent EU regulations - the GDPR .

Presumably - were there a legal requirement with respect to protection of the folks who seem less mature than their age is, we'd work something out. That said, all your pointers can just be as indicative of elder folks unused to the internet as pre-teens.

We rely entirely on self reporting of age to escalate underaged users to the CM team for investigation

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    I feel like this is the most important answer. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks anyone's mental age is, it matters what the law is. Feb 13, 2021 at 22:21
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No, I don't think that the age restriction should be broadened to cover "mental age". There are several reasons for this, the first one being that this is a highly subjective call to make, and it's impractical for CMs to evaluate all these cases that moderators might escalate. The chronological age on the other hand is objective, and quite easy to evaluate.

I also disagree with the list of indirect pointers of underdevelopment that you have enumerated.

  • erroneous principal logic;
  • lack of understanding of causal relationships;

These are quite simply not criteria that are feasible to evaluate, and is a judgement that two people could very reasonably disagree on. Perhaps you have some concrete examples in mind, but the penalty of the account being terminated, and all content being dissociated, is extremely harsh, and should not be applied to these subjective cases.

  • inconsistent/wrong punctuation;
  • inconsistent/wrong capitalization;
  • numerous typos;

These are at best signs of lack of an education, and perhaps a sign of the user not being an English speaker. Neither of these should restrict a user from posting content.

  • abusive CAPS;
  • excessive emojis

These could be easily explained by cultural differences in how content is presented. This content is obviously not allowed, but there are mechanisms in place such as downvotes to express this. Banning a user from posting is again, quite unreasonable.

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    Actually, first two criteria are often easily evaluated in STEM, but you are right, those in general can be subjective. As for the rest, there are guidelines and international standards in nearly every discipline of science that should be followed. If we take all cultural differences into consideration, it will make us look tolerable, but at the same time it's going to hinder communication abilities. That's why the Tower of Babel wasn't finished.
    – andselisk
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:28
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    @andselisk From your comment, it appears that you come from one of the technical SE sites. Coming from one of those myself, I'm certainly sympathetic to your POV (though I can't say I entirely agree with it). But the issue here is that this would be a network-wide policy, and there are many sites that are not remotely technical. Do you think it's reasonable to apply this metric to sites like ELL, or Korean language, for example?
    – cigien
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:36
  • You are correct, I mainly dwell on Chemistry.SE. I cannot speak for linguistics sites, but from what I see they also primarily use English for discussion, and basic principles of formatting and clarity in written communication doesn't change all that much. Style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style or The elements of style as well as dictionaries do exist and are available to every internet user, after all. In fact, I think it even becomes more complex for STEM as they need to account for more variables (sorry for the tautology).
    – andselisk
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:43
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    @andselisk Well, yes, there are somewhat uniform rules about how content should be presented across the network. However, those are quality issues. The underage ban is a legal restriction that SE is required to comply with (and from what I've seen, they do so begrudgingly). You appear to be intending for that legal requirement to be used as a quality filter, and I must say that I think that's a very dangerous thing to do.
    – cigien
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:59
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    I see how this may appear as a mechanism for censorship. I'm from a former Soviet country and I'm well-aware what horrible consequences this might have. I guess we stuck at the dilemma of striving for comprehensible quality content without affecting freedom of speech and self-expression. Anyway, thank you for sharing your viewpoint. Maybe it's just me being too demanding and asking too much, expecting too little at the same time.
    – andselisk
    Feb 13, 2021 at 22:11
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Would such an illiterately written post be a sign of an underage user

No. It could also easily be dyslexia.

Shall the answer be positive, should moderators report such users as possibly underage ones?

Well since the answer to the first was no, the answer to this is also no. Here is the current policy, which also reflects this by only applying to users claiming a certain age, not moderators suspecting one.

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    It could also be someone who is not fluent in English and just hasn't learned all the punctuation rules, etc yet. The concept of "mental age" may be relevant when studying a specific group of people (such as the population of a single elementary school) but means literally nothing when applied generally to the entire population of the world.
    – animuson StaffMod
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:13
  • @animuson I could make this community wiki and we can turn it into a collaborative effort of listing all the reasons someone makes mistakes while writing ;) but yeah, I just picked whatever came to my mind first, there's a whole lot more.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:15
  • I probably should've included a couple of examples, but at this stage it probably will only attract more downvotes. I know people with dyslexia and it's not how they would communicate. I'm talking about users perfectly capable of looking up terms before posting but not doing so. I'm also not a native English speaker, but I don't think it is as an excuse. Anyway, I appreciate the input and I would suggest to underline the type of age mentioned in ToS to make it less vague.
    – andselisk
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:22
  • Quick point of note that Tink works extensively with me as a moderator and I'm a formally diagnosed dyslexic :) Feb 13, 2021 at 22:12
  • @JourneymanGeek In addition to a person with dyslexia I knew from the childhood, I have a dozen acquaintances/colleagues from chemistry and physics departments, and nearly all of them mentioned they were told during psychological profiling at the university that they show autistic tendencies to various degree. Yet they are great people and successful scientists capable of presenting their results literally (well, in most cases:) ). That's not the type of audience I had in mind while posting this question, sorry for not making this clear.
    – andselisk
    Feb 13, 2021 at 22:25
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This question raises interesting issues:

  • could the persons development be judged from their writing on the internet?

  • If a number of developmental impairments can be correlated to biological age?

  • if exclusion of a user based on profiling their writing would be the same as the minimum age rule.

Well, in case of the later I think no. Because different laws apply for underage and underdeveloped.

Then, in case of the first I don't think you can positively profile that much from someone's writing.

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  • Note that I wrote excessive emojis:) Besides, I have never seen research articles, decent blog posts or textbooks using them which makes me wonder whether we need them at all, at least for serious stuff that matters. Learning, figuring stuff out is perfectly normal; moreover, should be encouraged, and by asking these questions I'm not attempting to put a spoke in wheel of those who strive for better knowledge. "best examples of complete nonsense you see are written by educated people"β€”I cannot agree more, but for their opinion to be heard, first and foremost it should be comprehensible.
    – andselisk
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:36
  • @andselisk I think those 2 bullet points would make good questions on psychology.stackexchange.com and law.stackexchange.com ...
    – bad_coder
    Feb 13, 2021 at 21:58

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