Facebook access for under-13 kids is good – if parents involved

Facebook is already used by millions of kids under 13 who lie about their ages to gain access. It makes sense that the social media network design specific guidelines for them, including parental permission.

Mahesh Kumar A/AP
A child looks at a laptop displaying Facebook logos in Hyderabad, India. Facebook currently prohibits children under 13 from having their own profile, but millions have gained access by lying about their age. Facebook is testing ways to allow kids to use Facebook under parental supervision, by connecting parents' and kids' accounts.

You may have noticed a Wall Street Journal article on Monday about Facebook “developing technology that would allow children younger than 13 years old to use the social-networking site under parental supervision.”

If so, that’s great news. A year ago, Consumer Reports did a study finding that 7.5 million children under 13 are using Facebook, so why would it not be good to have a social site suitable for kids under the “brand name” they love? They’re already there! And – though, in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Facebook says it deletes thousands of under-13 accounts a day – it’s clear that the federal law has not put much of a dent in under-13 use of social media. So what’s needed is a service actually designed for them, and that’s what Facebook is working on, reportedly.

Parents right there with them

The research shows parents aren’t unsupportive. Pew Internet reported last summer that adult use of social networking had doubled since 2008, and an earlier study from TRUSTe found that 95 percent of the 80 percent of US parents who have social networking accounts are on Facebook – and of that 95 percent, the vast majority (86 percent) are friends with their teens in Facebook.

Then researchers looked specifically at the underage question, finding that a lot of kids under 13 have their parents’ blessing. A study last fall, “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” found that, among parents of 10-to-14-year-old Facebook users, 84 percent were aware their children signed up and, of that 84 percent, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) even “helped create the account.” The study was led by social media researcher Danah Boyd, who for a CNET interview told my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid what she heard from parents of these young Facebook users:

"'They want their kids to have access to public life. Today, what public life means is participating in commercial sites. They want to help their kids get on these sites and use them responsibly. These are not parents who are saying, ‘Oh, get on Facebook’ and then walk away,' Boyd continued. She’s found from talking with young people and their parents around the country in her field work that “these are parents who have the computer in the living room, they’re having conversations with their kids, they’re often helping them create their accounts to talk to Grandma. They’re helping them actually negotiate all of this. And they want to do it often in the middle school years, when they can actually have reasonable conversations about how to act responsibly and where they can be present in this."

That presence and guidance from caring adults is even more important for kids of younger ages who are just beginning to negotiate social life on their own. Purely logically, a social network service designed for younger ages and supportive of parental engagement – rather than one with neither of those elements – would be better for the under-13 kids already there. Better than leaving kids to work the online part of this challenging part of growing up completely on their own. And if the service supports parental engagement, parents not already using social media will get on-the-job training.

An educator’s view

“I approach the idea of ‘restricting’ use of these newer social tools in any way with great reservation,” Hawaii educator and behavior health specialist Donnel Nunes told me two years ago. He continued:

"In a perfect world, parents would keep the computer in a visible area and monitor usage and that would solve so many of the problems that we see. As this is rarely the reality and sometimes parents are the ones modeling the problematic behavior, I understand the sense of urgency in trying to find a solution to protect kids. I fully support that urgency. I’m also a little cautious about making correlations between social networking and deviant behavior. I don’t believe there is any evidence to support that social networking = bad choices, bad behavior, etc. I do believe that mobile devices and media have created an opportunity for impulsive behavior to have greater consequences. I also hear about behavior from seventh and eighth graders that, when I was a kid (forgive me for that), did not really start happening until 11th, 12th, and beyond. I like to encourage adults (myself included) to really think about how the paradigm of social interaction has changed with new mobile devices and online tools (such as Facebook, etc). My experience with kids has led me to believe that these forms of communication are every bit as valid as the old way of doings things (face-to-face, phone calls…)."

It’s time for Facebook to do this – and listen to feedback from parents and educators, as well as their young users, so together we can figure this next, much more sound phase of social media the way it logically should be done: in and with participatory media.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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