Should I Let My Kid Buy or Sell on eBay?

It's A Lot to Think About

Mother and daughter using laptop together at home
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Lots of talking heads are out there giving advice about kids use of the Internet in various ways, from Facebook to email to online gaming. Not too many, of them, however, address eBay. Even if you already have a policy about or process for shopping online in place with your children, eBay is something of a different animal:

  • eBay allows for selling as well as buying
  • eBay purchases vary in risk from item to item and seller to seller
  • Both new and used goods are available
  • eBay shopping can involve communication and interaction (between buyer and seller)
  • With lots of formats, feedback, bidding, and item conditions, eBay shopping is unusually complex

For all of these reasons, it's useful to think about eBay as its own case and to ask whether or not you want your children to buy and/or sell on eBay. Here are a few things to keep in mind that can help you to make the determination for your family, and to decide on the practices or policies that make the most sense for you if you choose to make eBay available to your kids.

Kids and eBay Shopping

There's so much fun, collectible, and cheap stuff on eBay that kids—particularly older kids that are beginning to develop their own interests, goals, and hobbies—can naturally gravitate toward it. But before you let your kids haphazardly browse or shop on eBay, it pays to be aware of what's at stake.

  • eBay's complexity isn't just about eBay. eBay's complexity isn't just about using the website and all of the clicks and vocabulary terms that this entails; there's a social component to eBay (evaluating and communicating with other people, judging their intentions, reading between the lines of auction listings, and so on) that kids may not be sophisticated enough to come to grips with and that parents may not want their kids to directly participate in.
  • There is adult-oriented stuff on eBay. Even if you haven't seen it, there is adult-oriented material on eBay. There's an entire section, for example, dedicated to adult items and the listings are visually and textually explicit in a way that can get very NC-17 and beyond. These items don't appear in normal search results, but can be reached by browsing through eBay's categories and confirming (with a single click) that the person browsing is of age. If you're the parent that blocks adult-oriented sites with filtering software or services, this is something to be aware of. Just as importantly, even outside of adult-specific categories there are a lot of things on eBay that can be troubling to young people, like things associated with the reality of warfare (gas masks, weaponry, and similar historical artifacts, for example) or things meant to be whimsical during holiday seasons like Hallowe'en. There are also things that parents may not want some teens getting ahold of, like Nazi memorabilia or medical equipment and supplies.
  • An adult should probably always be present. For all of the reasons above, giving your kid free reign to shop on eBay before their mid- to late-teen years without your supervision may not be a good idea. You want to be sure to be there before they get caught in a bidding war for an item they've fixated on, or before they miss the fact that the item is being sold AS-IS or by someone with horrible detailed seller ratings, and certainly before they're exchanging contacts and communication with a seller out there somewhere in the ether.
  • You're responsible, even if your kid does something dumb. eBay's underage user policy prohibits the opening of an eBay account to be owned and operated entirely by and for anyone under 18 years old, but it doesn't prevent kids from using their parents' accounts, so long as they have their parents' permission. eBay makes clear, however, that anything your kid does or agrees to while on eBay is your responsibility as the account holder, and if you have a PayPal account as well, you can be pretty sure that eBay can enforce this.
  • Varying item conditions mean that hopes can be dashed. Kids have a fascinating ability to develop complex, specific expectations about things like purchases. Often these are based on marketing and advertising that they've been exposed to, or on social input from peers and friends at school or on the playground. The trouble with eBay is that many items on the site don't sell in retail conditions or configurations, but instead as used, refurbished, broken/AS-IS, incomplete, or some other condition. Managing expectations can thus be an important part of eBay shopping with kids, particularly if price savings are the goal.
  • None of this means that you shouldn't let your kids shop eBay. If you're not specifically against it after reading the items above and you can afford the time commitment necessary to help your kid to shop eBay, then it can be a tremendously educational and rewarding experience for both of you. eBay is a crash course in comparison shopping, close reading, critical thinking, social processes (like back-and-forth communication and bidding), and basic things like patience. It can also be an unmatched source for things like hobby or family fun goods that can't be had anywhere else. So if you can be there and you don't object, treat eBay like the great resource and opportunity that it is.

That's a lot to think about, but it just relates to buying. What do you need to think about if your kid is asking you to start selling on eBay? Read on to find out.

eBay selling represents an even more complex question for parents, because as a seller your legal and ethical obligations are somewhat higher, and because what's involved in eBay selling is somewhat more complicated still than what's involved in eBay buying.

Kids and eBay Selling

  • Remember that you're putting your money and finances at risk. As a seller, you may be operating as a business (because your kid is under 18, you'll legally be the seller in any sales transactions they list with your account). You'll be held to any laws and regulations that apply, both locally and nationally. Your taxes may be affected. Your bank accounts will be directly connected to your kid's activities. The stakes for selling are much higher than they are for buying when it comes to letting kids be involved.
  • Be more of an expert than your kid is. Before letting your child sell on eBay, be sure that you know eBay selling inside and out so that you know what's allowed, what's forbidden, what the risks are, and how to be successful. Depending on how much your kid plans to sell, you may want to know what the consequences of choosing a business model are, how to help your kid to source goods to sell (so that you don't end up with an empty house), what fees will be involved, and even how to get set up as a small business if repeated sales are a possibility.
  • Don't be naive about the complexity. Don't think that your kid can't or won't figure out how to sell if they're already buying on eBay. A smart kid with minimal access to your eBay and PayPal information can find your banking information around the house, set up a selling account using your eBay account, use any electronic device that they have access to list things for sale, even pack them up in spare boxes from the garage and schedule a pickup by USPS or UPS, all without your knowing it. They can then use whatever PayPal balance was earned to buy the stuff that they want on eBay, all without having to spend anything immediately from your accounts. If your kid is shopping on eBay, make clear that you don't ever want to come home and find that they've sold the television and your laptop while you were at work and shipped them off to opposite ends of the country, or used the proceeds from such a sale to buy an XBox and 20 games.
  • Take an active hand. Because customer service and good judgment is involved in making item listings, delivering on the promises that they make, and communicating clearly and effectively with buyers in a professional manner, it's important that you do more than sit back and watch or periodically check in if your kid is selling on eBay. Some of these things will need to be handled by you. Each and every communication and listing should probably be vetted by you, particularly for kids in their early- to mid-teens and younger.
  • Know the laws in your area. Before you allow your kid to materially participate in anything resembling a business, be sure to consult local officials about child and teen business and labor laws in your local and national areas. Letting your kid sell one-offs with your account is one thing; it's another if local officials decide that your minor is effectively running a business and putting in 30 or 40 hours a week to do it; similarly, it's one thing to help a late-teen start an eBay selling business and another to let a pre-teen go wild as they try to get money for their entertainment wants.
  • None of this means that you shouldn't let your kids sell on eBay. As long as you're able to keep up with all of the caveats above as a parent, there's no particular reason not to expose your kid to the process of selling on eBay. As rewarding a learning experience as eBay shopping can be, eBay selling can be even more rewarding from an educational and emotional development perspective. There are few easier or more real-world ways to teach kids about the basics of business—supply and demand, market research, keeping a ledger, providing good customer service, and taking responsibility for actions in general, amongst other things.

    The Cost-Benefit Analysis

    At the end of the day, it's a cost-benefit analysis that you need to do as a parent, taking into account:

    • The age of your kids
    • The relative levels of risk involved in buying and selling
    • The relative levels of expertise you'll need as a parent for buying and selling
    • The time commitment involved
    • The good things that eBay can offer to kids beyond the items being bought or the money being earned

    Whether you allow your kids to buy and sell on eBay, just do one or the other, or do neither at all is entirely up to you as a parent. Just remember that in one way or another, your kid probably already has experience or a relationship with eBay from prior visits, even if you're not aware of them.