I did an interview for WTSP Channel 10 News today where I spoke on all the reasons that a child under the age of 13 should not be on Facebook. Last year, approximately 7.5 million users were estimated to be under the minimum age of 13. First of all, the Child Online Privacy Protection Act requires companies like Facebook that collect private information about people to have parental approval if that person is under 13. So Facebook just knocks off anyone who tries to put in a birthday making them younger than 13. (It’s easy to lie about that birthday and Facebook will even let the child change his/her year of birth down the road when the kid turns 13.) I talked about the inappropriateness of the conversations and photos for the eyes of young Facebook users. Although the parent may be discreet because they know their child is on Facebook, what about that cousin who is in college or the wild single aunt? Cyberbullying can occur as well, and children can also be the target of scammers or child molesters. Children may also not know what information is appropriate to post on social networks. An embarrassing photo, for example, may never go away online. In addition, who know what Facebook is doing with all that information collected about these young users? This vulnerable population could be targeted with advertising based on their interests, creating problems for parents who are then expected to buy, buy, buy for their kids. Finally, as a parent, you are not setting a good example if you help your child lie about their age (and many parents do this because they help the child set up the account.)
During this interview, my 11-year-old son happened to be with me. He tagged along because he is already out of school for the summer. They asked him whether he had a Facebook account to which he replied, “Off the record, yes.” But the reporter wanted to know more. As a mom, why would I let an 11-year-old have a Facebook account? I allowed them to take some B-roll of my son looking at an iPhone and this footage and mention of him may very well get him knocked off Facebook, but I don’t think he would really care. He is on there because he broke me down after hearing so much about Facebook. He also really wanted to play Farmville and Fishville. At first, all his privacy controls were set to “no one.” No one could friend him, search him, etc. I’ve loosened up a little so everything now says “only friends.” He has a total of 22 friends, a list I check occasionally. Eighteen are family members including myself and my husband. One is a boy from school, one is a preschool teacher, and two are family members of a friend from camp (who doesn’t have an account himself). He hasn’t been on Facebook in about two months and that’s about as regularly as he is on there. I certainly have some ethical issues with this, but I guess I am not taking the drastic step of actually deleting the account.
I’m not sure how the story will turn out, but I asked the reporter not to make me look too hypocritical. I don’t support the use of social networks for kids under 13. The problems certainly outweigh the benefits. I don’t think social networking is a skill that needs to be mastered as a preteen. Sometimes, however, you just give in to your kids in the same way you might get them that puppy they’ve always wanted. That’s my son’s latest project–wearing me down for a pet. I might have caved on Facebook, but I’m still maintaining a dog-free house.
FYI, danah boyd conducted some interesting research last year that was published in First Monday called “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age” .