Under-age on Facebook: Thoughts for parents

Offering a little perspective on the Consumer Reports survey and what to do once we intelligently move past the scary news coverage

By Anne Collier

The Consumer Reports headline reads, “That Facebook friend might be 10 years old, and other troubling news,” but – interestingly – fewer and fewer parents find it troubling. Most of today’s headlines about under-13 social networkers are about the Consumer Reports survey, which found that 20 million, or about 13% of Facebook’s 150 million active US users are under 18 and 7.5 million, or about 5%, are under the site’s minimum age of 13. [The age minimum is not mainly a safety measure; it’s in place mainly because of a federal children’s online privacy law: COPPA.]

Parents decreasingly concerned

But another survey (by Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project), about parents of social networkers, was also released this week. It found that 17% of parents surveyed “said they had no problem with a pre-teen child using a social media site, compared to just 8% a year ago,” Reuters reports, and “11% of parents admitted to using social media sites on behalf of a young child or infant, according to the online survey of about 1,000 adults.” Reuters cites the view of a Columbia University Hospital clinical psychiatry instructor that underage use of social sites is “not alarming,” that it means parents need to be aware what’s going on with their kids in and how best to use social media. In other key findings of the Liberty Mutual study, about 90% of the parents surveyed use FB frequently; most “think that children under 18 should not be able to keep their account to themselves”; a third monitor their kids’ social site use; and 44% limit the time their kids spend online and texting. As for cyberbullying, Reuters reports that “most parents said they thought it was their responsibility to resolve the situation if their child was a victim and 63% thought teachers and schools should be doing more to stop it.”

An educator’s view

An educator in the US said a year ago that “younger kids can be okay with social networking. I approach the idea of ‘restricting’ use of [today’s new] social tools in any way with great reservation,” said Donnel Nunes, a behavior health specialist in the Hawaii Department of Education. “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.” However, he added, “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” (for more from Nunes and two other US educators on this, see my blog post).

According to Consumer Reports, “only 18% of parents of kids 10 and under made their child a Facebook friend,” compared to 62% of parents of 13- and 14-year-old Facebook users, and “only 10% of parents of kids 10 and under had frank talks about appropriate online behavior and threats.” As for teens, an earlier study commissioned by TRUSTe found that, of the 95% of US parents of social-networking teens who have social-networking accounts themselves, 86% are Facebook friends with their teens (see this for more).

We all need a little help with this

So – if all these surveys are accurate – it’s clear that parents of kids under 13, especially of those under 11, need to ask their kids if they have Facebook accounts (in as loving and unthreatening a way as possible so the two of you can actually talk), then show Mom or Dad their profiles. Don’t be scared by Consumer Reports; fear is no help, in fact it puts up huge communication hurdles that you and your child don’t need. Just use the information to explain to your child why everybody – not just kids – needs a little help to manage their public image online, and you want to be there for them. In fact, you’d like them to be there for you, too. So the two of you need to be Facebook friends. You don’t have to write on each other’s walls or anything. It’s best not to, because parents and kids usually don’t fully understand the tricky dynamics of each other’s social worlds, so it’s better to talk at home than to be intrusive in the Facebook part of that social dynamic and risk serious embarrassment (which can lead to meanness from peers for your child).

We might also consider what messages both our own Facebook use and our attitudes and actions toward others are sending to our children when we’re around them. On the Facebook side of this, Consumer Reports found, many [adult] active Facebook users take risks that can lead to burglaries, identity theft, and stalking. Fifteen percent had posted their current location or travel plans, 34% their full birth date, and 21% of those with children at home had posted those children’s names and photos.” The report added that “roughly one in five [of us adults] hadn’t used Facebook’s privacy controls, making them more vulnerable to threats.” So here’s a novel idea: Ask your kids for their help in figuring out the privacy settings. Chances are they haven’t really dug into them (as in “Customize settings”) either, so “two [or more] heads are better than one,” as they say! A little interdependence can be great for a family. Here’s a little free help from us for your family-interdependence project: “A Parents’ Guide to Facebook.”

Related links

* Facebook deletes thousands of under-13 accounts a day, it says (20,000 accounts/day overall), I wrote in March.
* Related data: The Consumer Reports data on under-13 Facebook use “tracks with other studies, including a 2010 study by McAfee that found 37% of 10 to 12 year olds are on Facebook and a study (PDF) released in April from the London School of Economics EU Kids Online project that found that 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-old European children used social-networking sites, with one in five using Facebook, ‘rising to over 4 in 10 in some countries’,” writes my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in CNET.
* Across the pond: A study last year by UK regulator Ofcom found that a quarter of British 8-to-12-year-olds who use the Net at home have profiles on social-network sites (see this post).
* The new media product: I was very interested to see Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at security firm BT Global Service, tell Consumer Reports that we’re not Facebook’s customer, we’re its product. That’s like what I wrote about “the living Internet” last year here. I wrote that the Internet, as we’re all using it now, is not just the product of our creativity, learning, and sociality; it mirrors them as well as serves as a platform for them. It is another “place” where our creations and sociality play out in real time. So yes, our behavior, thoughts, social interactions – as we express them in digital media – are the “product” of the media industry now. Behavior as content. The implications are enormous; we need to push through our fears to really begin to work out together what those implications are (see “Juvenoia, Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated” and “Juvenoia, Part 2: So why are we afraid?

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