During her recent appearance on the Today show, First Lady Michelle Obama stirred up public discussion regarding children using social networking sites like Facebook. The First Daughters, ages 12 and 9, are not among the half billion Facebook users worldwide, Mrs. Obama said.
Obama said she is “not a fan of young kids having Facebook. It’s not something they need.”
And, according to some recent polls, many parents agree. A Pew survey reported that 93 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 are online, and 73 percent of those do use social networking sites like Facebook.
While a recent ABC News poll revealed that most parents think 15 is an appropriate age for kids to begin online social networking, it should be pointed out that a sizeable minority, 43 percent, say social networking sites aren’t appropriate at all for kids under age 18.
For its part, Facebook does require that users be at least 13 years old. Following Obama’s statements, a spokesman for Facebook, Andrew Noyes, responded, “This (age) restriction is both for safety and to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Facebook has systems in place at the point of sign-up to prevent people who identify themselves as under the age of 13 from creating accounts. It’s a violation of our terms to provide false birth date information, and we have community verification systems after sign-up to help ID people who are doing this so we can take appropriate action.”
Of course, most regular Facebook users sometimes get “friend requests” from an elementary school child who has “officially” listed a date of birth long enough ago to not only get past the security requirement but to allow them to buy beer, to vote, and in some cases to apply for Social Security. Needless to say, though Facebook can provide a forum where 100,000 can simultaneously report they enjoy Fridays, their “community verification system” doesn’t foil a 12-year-old who simply lists their age as 21.
Critics say parents who allow underage kids on Facebook are teaching them it’s OK to break the rules. Others believe Facebook is OK as long as there are guidelines.
Some parents require anyone seeking to befriend their children online to become their friend as well, allowing the parent to see anything being discussed or posted online. Knowing what your child is posting and what others are posting about your child is a key concern for many parents. Others simply allow their children access to their personal Facebook account and accept friend requests from their kids’ friends. The drawback here is the same as when people let young kids answer their phones. Not only are the conversations frustrating for adults (possibly for the kids as well) but you are never sure that parents actually get messages left for them.
Critics say despite rules over Facebook use for underage kids or even teenagers there’s no way a parent can supervise their kids on social networking sites, especially when practically every cell phone is accessible to Facebook. Mom and dad can’t look over their kids’ shoulders all the time.
And what does this constant connectedness do to our children? No longer are “friends” only the other kids your kids meet at school. Prior to cell phones and Facebook, kids maneuvering through the daily struggles of growing up could at least look forward to home as a safe haven. Now days, friends and enemies can text, e-mail or Facebook chat all day everyday.
Of course, on the other hand, if you have a shy child who is a big fan of some book, film, or game, they may find a community of other fans to join that wouldn’t be available here in the real world.
So while there may be valid concerns over what is or is not appropriate for kids and social networking sites, ultimately it is the parents’ choice. But we would caution the adults to take responsibility to see what their child and their “friends” are into online.