Is your child on Facebook? And by child, I mean under the age of 13. Technically, they shouldn’t be since Facebook currently does not allow users who aren’t yet teenagers. But that hasn’t stopped nearly 7.5 million such youngsters from finagling an account — including 5 million under the age of 10 — according to a 2011 Consumer Reports survey. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook is developing technology that would open the gates to all kids to post their latest status update (Example? Apple juice is nice, but not three times a day! Mix it up, Mom!). The social network expresses some ambivalence about the discussions, but since so many children are already on the site, they might have a legal obligation to make the site safer by formalizing access and making parental supervision more comprehensive. “We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment,” Facebook said. But is a more “restrictive” Facebook for youngsters a Trojan horse?
Facebook might have an obligation to regulate youth access — outdated COPPA laws ban the collection of online preferences and information from those under the age of 13 — but the site would also benefit enormously by getting into the lucrative market of children’s online games. So you can understand why some child-advocacy groups are skeptical of Facebook’s motives. “What Facebook is proposing is similar to the strategies used by Big Tobacco in appealing to young people — try to hook kids early, build your brand, and you have a customer for life,” Common Sense Media CEO, James Steyer, said in a statement.
Many parents, apparently, don’t feel as strongly as Steyer. The Journal cited a recent Microsoft study that found that 36 percent of parents were aware their under-aged kids were on Facebook. Many of them admitted to assisting their children acquire accounts. “Whether we like it or not, millions of children are using Facebook, and since there doesn’t seem to be a universally effective way to get them off the service, the best and safest strategy would be to provide younger children with a safe, secure and private experience that allows them to interact with verified friends and family members without having to lie about their age,” writes Larry Magid, a journalist who’s also co-director of the Facebook-affiliated ConnectSafely.com.
Yes, millions of young children are already on Facebook, and that I find terrifying. Not just for 10- or 13-year olds, but for 15- and 17-year olds, too. In a recent column, Philadelphia-area writer Kate Fratti cited Robin Kevles Necowitz, a psychotherapist and parenting coach who dared parents to ban their children — of all ages — from Facebook. “Kids are struggling to learn how to navigate personal relationships,” said Kevles Necowitz. “Relationships, even the healthiest ones (especially the healthiest ones), are very hard work! Facebook makes friendships look easy. It’s not a good message to send. I’m sorry, but you don’t have 487 ‘friends.’ We are blessed if we have three.”
“Childhood is a vulnerable time. And we have so little time to teach our kids how to manage budding relationships and all that is involved in being a good friend. To be a good friend requires conflict resolution and listening skills, providing loving support and encouragement, and knowing how to approach difficult/sensitive subjects that often lead to difficult conversations with people you love. It is an art form. A skill that will be lifelong. Facebook is a distraction from all that.”
That much common sense is difficult to refute. I don’t want my children to be luddites, but Facebook seems like a potentially treacherous venue that can magnify everything that is ugly about childhood interaction, from peer pressure to bullying. I’m not sure the perks outweigh the costs.
Do you Like the idea of expanding Facebook access to all ages? Do you trust Facebook, which does not have the best reputation for protecting user privacy, to treat child accounts with the appropriate amount of care and sensitivity?