Pop quiz: Your child, who’s not yet 13, tells you she wants to join Facebook. What do you do?
I’m weeks from becoming a mom myself, and I know my answer won’t come easy. Especially as powerful platforms like Facebook draw more and more of society’s most vulnerable into their ranks.
On Monday, news broke that Facebook is developing ways to welcome kids under 13 onto the site, potentially lifting a ban on underage users designed to comply with a federal law that requires sites to get parental consent before collecting personal information from minors.
Not that the ban has much bite. A 2011 Consumer Reports study determined that 7.5 million kids under 13 have accounts on Facebook, including 5 million under the age of 10.
Complicated privacy controls. Conversations that stir the world. Nine-hundred million users. Even to the savviest parent, Facebook is not just a site. It’s a monster. A monster kids will have to learn to tame — eventually.
For everyone trying to do right by our kids and their inevitably digital futures, here are four questions to keep in mind.
1. Do you want your kid to lie?
Until Facebook makes these changes — and there’s no guarantee it will — dodging its age ban is as easy as telling a little white lie.
According to a 2011 study sponsored by Microsoft Research, one-third of the parents surveyed said their kids joined facebook before they were 13. and of those parents, two-thirds helped their kids create those accounts.
“It strikes me as very strange that parents would not only condone but enable lying about your age on Facebook and then be upset to learn that that child had gotten a fake ID to go out drinking,” said Dimitri Christakis, a Seattle Children’s pediatrician and Internet and health researcher, who made his son wait until he was 13 to join the site.
2. Do you know your kid?
Assuming you’re OK with letting your preteen join Facebook, how young is too young?
Age cutoffs are tricky. We don’t all suddenly become mature enough to watch R-rated movies at 17, or to drink responsibly at 21. When there’s a call for standards, society takes its best guess. To really know if your kid is ready for Facebook, you have to know your kid. Do they play well with others? Can they sense danger? Would they get too wrapped up in the chatter?
Poulsbo lifestyle blogger Jenny Ingram is all over Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. She knows how fun being online can be — and how risky, hard to trust, and addictive. Her eldest turns 13, the legal age, in two weeks, but she and her husband haven’t decided whether he should get a Facebook page for his birthday.
“Just because it’s legally OK doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best thing for them,” she said. “They’re kids.”
3. Do you know Facebook?
Think you can make an informed decision about when your child should join Facebook if you don’t know the space yourself? Think again. And if you don’t interact on the site when they do, you lose a chance to model good online behavior, monitor their activity and understand their social world.
So be warned: giving in to their Facebook beg isn’t the easy way out. It’s the hardest.
“I want my kids to feel like they’re growing with tech,” said Seattle mom Marie Montemayor, who let her 11-year-old daughter, Hailey, join the site for a few months this year. “I feel like my early exposure to technology made my life easier.”
Love it or hate it, Facebook isn’t going anywhere. Maybe you won’t let your kid sign up when he’s 10, or 13, or 16. But watch out: If he’s too late to join, he may be too late to benefit.
4. Do you — and your child — know the risks?
It took watching Hailey’s expression as she read her iPad for Montemayor to find out her daughter had been pulled in to a dangerous conversation, leading her to deactivate the account.
No parent wants to think her child could face online abuse. One million children were subjected to some form of cyberbullying in the year leading to the 2011 Consumer Reports study. Of course, kids can get hurt anywhere. Online, it can be painfully public.
Want your kids to learn, but don’t want to throw them to the digital wolves of the world’s largest and least predictable social site? Start with kid-focused networks like clubpenguin.com. They’re like training wheels for Facebook: less thrilling and no substitute, but a great way to get comfortable.
Have an answer, but not sure it’s the right one? Keep learning. Your child may be in middle school. But Facebook — powerful as it is — is only eight.
For all we know, it’s just getting started.