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Facebook for Kids: Is it That Alarming?

By Lynette Owens

Wall Street Journal article this week has stirred again a discussion about Facebook allowing those under 13 to use its site.  Mark Zuckerberg once addressed it in public, when asked about it. 

It strikes me as odd as Facebook’s stock continues its slide that such a story would be resurrected, and wonder if the opposite were true, we might never have heard of this again – until perhaps Facebook actually had opened its doors to those under 13.  The supposition is that Facebook needs more users to prop up its stock.

But besides the suspicious timing of this story, I still wonder why an arbitrary age set by the laws of 1 country that compromises only some of the 900 million Facebook users worldwide creates panic among some of us.

Let’s start with the facts:

  • As of this moment, Facebook hasn’t changed.  They still don’t allow anybody under 13 to use it.
  • There is no law prohibiting them from allowing those under 13 to use their site.  In the U.S. the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) simply requires that if anyone under 13 is using your site, you need to collect, protect, verify certain pieces of information.  It’s a lot of work to do this (we understand what it takes here at Trend, which is why we don’t allow those under 13 to register for our annual What’s Your Story? online video contest), but it’s not illegal if you choose to do it.
  • Millions of kids under 13 are using Facebook.  And their parents let them, as noted in the oft-cited Consumer Reports study (which is US only).
  • There are already many social media sites that allow kids under 13 to use them.  Granted, they are designed for kids, but like ANY site, there is no way to truly verify anyone’s age online – you could still have a 50-year old predator pretending to be a 12-year old on Club Penguin.  This is also true of online gaming communities like Xbox Live where you can play against and even speak live to a stranger as you compete against them.

When I speak to parent communities, many of them tell me that they have allowed their under 13-year old kids to use Facebook.  Their reasons range from “My son’s a good kid” to “It helps her keep in touch with family.”  Whatever their reason, these parents feel that the ultimate decision rests with them.  They are both trusting of and involved with their kids’ use of technology.

Other parents I speak to panic at the thought of their child and technology.  The 13 year age limit gives them a reason to disallow Facebook for a while.  These parents are typically not heavy users of social media themselves, so it’s understandable that something unfamiliar worries them.

Both points of view are important to consider.  Both are the reasons why education is critical.

But to put things into perspective, I think the panic is another case of attributing societal ills to technology such as stranger danger, bullying, or aggressive commercialism towards kids.  These things existed long before social media.  And while an environment like Facebook, where anyone can gather, might create opportunities for these issues to persist, they are in no way created, addressed, or eliminated by Facebook either.

If you’re going to fight Facebook on its age restriction, than you should take the entire technology community on.  No such arbitrary age requirement exists for cell phones, the iPod Touch or eReaders.  But they all have access to the Internet.  And many kids have and use them.  Where’s the panic here? 

And who’s to say what the right age is?  Or whether it will be the solution to truly keeping kids safe online?

Instead of wasting time and energy on creating panic, here’s what would be more productive: 

  • Give parents some credit and some room. 
    • They’re the first to introduce to kids technology, so let’s make it a priority to give them all the information they need to make those decisions, so they go into them with eyes wide open.
  • Let’s all put age limits into perspective.
    • While groups such as the MPAA and ESRB provide age ratings for movies and video games, respectively, parents still have the ultimate choice as to what media is or isn’t appropriate for their kids.   Social media should be treated similarly.  For that matter, so should dating, wearing makeup, walking home from school, etc.
  • There’s still an age limit on Facebook today, so let’s respect the rules.
    • We are not advocating that you go out and let any kid who wants one open a Facebook account.  Today, there are still terms of use and community guidelines, and we should encourage kids to abide by this.  If you want your kids to use social media today, there are options out there such as YourSphere, Club Penguin, Family iBoard, KidzVuz, Moshi Monsters, etc.  Parents who really want their kids to learn good social media skills can spend a few minutes researching some of these and perhaps letting them start there.

Today, Google allows me to let my daughter (who’s under 13) have a gmail account which shows her name as the sender, but is opened and managed under my own account.  I see everything that comes and goes into her mailbox.  She does not get a huge volume of email (my kids are too busy with too many other things to spend so much time online). 

If Facebook set up a similar environment, it would eliminate the need for any parents to tell their kids to lie (or lie for them), give them a way to be very hands on with it and teach them lessons along the way until they;re old enough to be on it alone.

That is a huge underlying premise of our own philosophy and work in the area of digital literacy and online safety education.  This is not the time to worry parents more than they already do.  (As a parent I do this quite well on my own, thank you.)  This is the time to empower them.  Help them.  Inform them.  So that any decisions they make on the road to raising healthy, happy, successful kids includes how to help them be digitally savvy.

Some resources on safe social networking:

BLOG: Help Kids with Safe, Responsible Use of Social Networks 

BLOG: Safe Video Creation, Sharing, and Chatting

TIPS: Safety Tips for Social Networking

TIPS: A Facebook Guide for Parents – from Connectsafely.org

PRODUCTS: Trend Micro Online Guardian – helps you get your teen up and running on social networking, allowing you to monitor and guide them, so they can use it wisely on their own. 

TIPS: Setting up a Gmail Alias so your kids can have an email address under your account

For more news on Digital Literacy and Online Safety, follow Lynette on Twitter @lynettetowens

Tags :anti-bullying lawscell phonesCOPPAcyberbullyingdigital citizenshipdigital literacyeducationFacebookinternet safetymedia literacyonline privacysocial networking

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