By Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
I was sitting in the children’s section of the library with books about SpongeBob SquarePants and Clifford the Big Red Dog scattered around me when I was approached by a little boy interested in the screen on my laptop.
“Are you on Facebook?” he asked. Yes, I was checking in on my page while my kids made their book selections.
“I have a Facebook, too,” the little guy said.
“You look a little young for it. How old are you?” I asked.
“Seven. You wanna see my page?” he asked. I was taken aback and startled by the offer.
No, I did not want to see a 7-year-old’s Facebook profile, nor could I imagine what sort of updates he was posting: “Just had a Fruit Roll-Up snack after soccer. Yum!”
Once upon a time, we taught our children not to talk to strangers. Now we allow them to post their lives online?
I was ready to dismiss this exchange as a fluke, until I posted about it on my own page and learned that my sister recently received a friend request from her 7-year-old daughter’s friend. On the grade-schooler’s account, she lists her “likes” as “Diary of Wimpy Kid,” ”Drake and Josh” and, of course, Justin Bieber.
Reluctantly, my sister accepted, but now her own daughter wants a profile. I suppose a site that has lured 500 million people is bound to attract some children. Although Facebook makes an attempt to set an age limit (13 years old) by requiring a birth date to register, there is no way to verify the information. It’s pretty easy to fake your way in. And, there are parents willing to create an account for their child by giving a false birth date.
Stephen Balkam, CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, describes this behavior as irresponsible.
Parents may justify it by saying they will restrict the privacy and monitor the activity. But even so, it’s a bad idea to induct your child into the world of Facebook at such a young age.
“Facebook was not created for 7-year-olds,” he said. “Kids that age really, really don’t have the ability to make good judgments about what they are putting out there.” And, the reality of being a parent these days is that it is nearly impossible to monitor your children 24/7, he added.
There are obvious safety concerns. Cyber bullying is a real threat, as is physical safety. Children are more likely to share too much personal information. There’s a long-term risk to future reputations, in which the youthful posting of a child might affect a college application or job opportunity.
Children often visit the site to play the games, which give those sites access to their information.
Perhaps just as dubious a message for children at an age when they are forming a sense of self is that their private lives, their games, thoughts and pictures are of interest and should be shared with everyone else. There is an element of social networking sites that feeds narcissism. It perpetuates a notion that we are all celebrities; we are all paparazzi.
Some parents, however, like Doug Terfehr, senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, say they have found a safe and useful way to merge family and Facebook.
Terfehr says most of his family lives out of town, so he and his wife created an account for their 7-year-old son a year ago as a way for him to keep in touch with relatives. They post pictures of the kids’ special events, and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can comment.
“It’s almost like getting a letter from grandma and grandpa all the time,” he explained. It was too cumbersome to e-mail photos with attachments and not an interactive experience for the children. He says his son is only allowed to log on when he or his wife is present, and his only “friends” are relatives and a few close family friends.
“It works great for us,” he said, because it gives his children a way to relate to far-flung extended family and develop a relationship with them. It takes a fair amount of vigilance to manage a child’s account as carefully as the Terfehrs.
Balkam says he understands the appeal of using social media sites as a way of staying connected, and his organization is increasingly encouraging parents to use sites specifically geared toward children. He likes togetherville.com, which is based on a parent’s Facebook account and allows children to “friend” the children of their parents’ friends.
“It’s almost like the training wheels for Facebook,” he said. “It restricts the kind of things they can say and post, so they do not overshare or use foul language.” It’s a chance for parents to talk to children about responsible use and consequences of what they post.
The core demographic is 6 to 11 years old. Yes, today’s generation of children communicates differently with one another than ours. But there is something to be said for when a 6- to 11-year-old’s social networking happens on a neighborhood street or local park rather than in front of a computer screen.
Balkam said his daughter “absolutely” had to wait until she was 13 years old before getting a Facebook account.
And, even then, there were strict rules: Homework first, then chores, then Facebook. In the summer, they restricted their daughter to no more than two hours of Facebook a day.
“It can be quite addictive,” he said. “It’s a very, very immersive environment, and time can just disappear on you.”
Given how quickly childhood disappears, this may be the last way we want our children to squander it.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.