My Kid on Facebook?

Dec 13

My Kid on Facebook?

My ten year old son has been begging me to let him join Facebook.  As with most parents, my automatic response is No (Are you freaking crazy?)  After all, I worry enough about protecting him from dangers lurking in the physical world, expanding that concern to the virtual world seems downright terrifying. 

 “Everyone is doing it, Mom,” he claims (like I haven’t heard that one before!) 

Thankfully, by “everyone” he means a handful of kids in his class.  This is good for me.  It means that the peer pressure hasn’t reached the level of “gotta have it” intensity as other recent trends (think: Silly Bandz and skinny jeans.)  It means I have some time.  Time to do my own research into determining how much of the frenzy around Facebook privacy is warranted and how much is a result of paranoid, yet uninformed, parents.  

My first concern is my son’s age.  He is ten years old and the rules for Facebook state that members must be at least 13 years of age.  However, the rule cannot be enforced and therefore can be viewed more as a guideline for parents.  So, by allowing him to join Facebook, I am also encouraging him to lie about his age.  I’m not particularly comfortable with that (unless it means getting into a Disney Park for free.)

 My biggest concern, and likely one shared by every parent with access to the internet, is his privacy.  Thanks, in part, to Canada’s own privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, Facebook has vastly improved its security settings.  Parents can now set almost every component of a child’s Facebook page to “friends only” or “me only.”  Furthermore, the social network excludes all teen users from being found through search engines, adding an extra layer of security that is not provided to its older members. 

On the other hand, there are certain elements of a Facebook user’s profile that are always available to everyone on Facebook, no matter what the age.  These are:

  • Users’ name
  • Profile pictures
  • Gender, and
  • Networks they belong to

Hence, the need for Facebook to keep its rule to exclude members younger than 13 years old.

Why exactly does my son wish to join Facebook, anyways?  He’s really not all that “into” socializing at his age.  A little more digging, and I learn that his main reason for joining is to play games.  Ah, the dreaded “apps.”  Facebook took a licking recently when word got out that some of their most popular applications were sharing their users’ personal data with advertisers.  So, I am particularly paranoid about the games.  However, facebook has improved the privacy settings here, too.  Users can now set the most private selections for all applications, as well as within each individual app.  This is a relief, yet I wonder, does he really need another incentive to park his rear in front of a screen? 

“Places” is a lesser known feature of the network that allows a mobile device with GPS to indicate where the Facebook user is hanging out.  Just thinking that any number of strangers could know that my son is hanging out at the local Laser Planet has me breaking out in a sweat.  Thankfully, this service is NOT automatically turned on when joining the network, but can be activated if a friend tags another friend at a location.  To prevent this from occurring, parents can disable “Friends can check me in to Places.”  This whole concept just seems wrong to me, regardless of age, but especially for younger Facebook users.

The technical hiccups alone are almost enough reason to continue to say no to Facebook.  But if I can overcome those, there still remain the “social” decorum of online networking.    

My first rule will be to make me his very first “friend.”  After all, I need to know exactly who is friending him, and what is being posted on his page.  (But I’ll refrain from making embarrassing comments like, “Honey, I just washed all your underwear today.”)  A fellow mom-friend has allowed her 11 year old daughter to join Facebook as long as she does not “friend” anyone without her mother’s consent. 

The biggest challenge for any adult is teaching a child to be extra careful about what he posts online.  The internet has a memory that never, ever, ever fades.  While my son might think it funny to post a silly comment on his friend’s wall, if the wording is misinterpreted by another, he could find himself in a lot of trouble.  Is any ten-year old capable of thinking before speaking, or in this sense, typing?  I’m not sure. 

Research by Youth-Risk has indicated that for the majority of youth, online social networking is mostly a reflection of offline life.  So, if my son has a healthy social life at school, chances are his online life will remain healthy, too.  However, for a child who suffers social troubles at school, online social networks can amplify those problems very quickly and detrimentally.

“A user’s safety depends on the user as much as the site,” is what A Parents’ Guide to Facebook, by Anne Collier & Larry Magic, advises parents.  And when it comes to kids, the user needs a lot of parent back-up.

I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle the privacy challenges of Facebook right now.  Clearly, my son’s safety requires as much my effort as his.  And, once I say yes to the social network, it will be almost impossible to turn back (that Farmville can be addictive!)  For now, I’m going to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s advice and wait until my son is 13 years old.  I think the guy knows what he’s talking about.

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