Social networking under age 13: Some ed experts’ views

By Anne Collier

After a UK report finding that a quarter of 8-to-12-year-old British Net users are on Facebook and a US principal calls for a Facebook ban for middle schoolers (see below), I thought you’d appreciate some perspective from some top US educators and risk-prevention specialists….

* From Mike Donlin, Senior Program Consultant in Prevention, Intervention and Tech Services, Seattle Public Schools:

“Here’s what we’re seeing – and this is both bricks-and-mortar and online (and as we all know well, for our young people, there is really little-to-no distinction):

“1. What used to be activity generally done by older students is moving farther and farther down the age groups…
“2. In the meantime, ‘cyberbullying,’ as we are generally using the term, is moving up into the adult group, and…
“3. The teen/young adult groups are going deeper and deeper underground (Formspring-type sites) – e.g., ‘my Facebook is shiny and spotless; my nastiness is harder to find’).”

Donlin’s last point about using different sites for different purposes or behaviors is not particularly new but worth highlighting for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals inclined to focus heavily on a handful of sites as “the problem.” It’s also important to note, I feel, that Donlin is not suggesting that “nastiness” is in any way typical, just that youth are making it less public.

* Doug Fodeman, co-director, and technology director of Brookwood School in Manchester, MA, in response to Donlin’s first point:

“[ co-director] Marje Monroe and I have seen this trend [social networking at younger ages] in our research for many years. For example, in 2007 it was unusual for a 6th grader to have a Facebook account and unheard of for 4th or 5th graders to have them. Now we find that about 25% of sixth graders at schools we visit have a Facebook account, and we estimate that 3-9% of 4th and 5th graders have such an account. (In 2008 we surveyed about 3,000 students in grades 4-12, and 2,000-3,000 students in 2006 and 2007.)

“Nowadays every school we visit has 4th or 5th graders with a Facebook account, and we have heard through the ‘kids grapevine’ that there are 3rd graders with accounts. Keep in mind that Facebook itself began as a site for people 18 and older. Two years later, they moved their minimum age requirement to 16, and then two years thereafter to 13.”

* Donlin: “I’ve been in 4th and 5th grade classrooms a lot lately, and it’s very, very common for them to have Facebook accounts. When I ask them how they ‘can’ do that, they say, 1) ‘Oh, I have it with my parents’ or 2) ‘We lie.’ I tell them I understand. But that’s OK, once their ages hit double digits – like 10 years old. (They laugh nervously, but they get it.) I then suggest that if they’re lying, others might be as well.”

* Donnel Nunes, behavior health specialist in the Hawaii Department of Education, says something that may surprise adults who aren’t active users of the social Web but is borne out in the research (see the first of my Web News Briefs below):

“I agree with Mike [Donlin] that younger kids can be okay with social networking. I approach the idea of ‘restricting’ use of these newer social tools in any way with great reservation. 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 7th and 8th 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…).

“Rather than more restrictions, I encourage moving in the direction of increasing the ability/accessibility for adults in education to guide students in the use of these new tools” (I wholeheartedly agree – see “School & social media”).

Readers, your views would be most welcome too! Please comment, if you’d like – via anne[at] or in our forum.

Related links

*Technology & the Adolescent: Paring Modern Media and Technology with Mental Health Practice,” by Donnel Nunes (quoted above), Brian Raley (Temple U.), Kavita Rao (U. of Hawaii), Cameo Borntrager (Temple U.), Kandis Rohner (HI Dept. of Education), and Sujan Shrestha (Towson U.)
* “Lots of underage social networkers” linking to a recent study in the UK on the subject
* “Parenting & the digital drama overload”

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