My eldest daughter is finally 13 years old.
"Must be time for facebook now dad"is the daily refrain. Actually, Chanel's been pretty relaxed about it. But deep down I know that she's 'dying' to set up her facebook account.
Everyone's on it. It is pervasive. It is generally addictive. And it is also generally unproductive.
So should your kids be on facebook?
My simple, short answer is "Sure, of course." But with a few important provisos, best worked out between you and your child in a mature, democratic way.
First, the most important learning and growth your kids will get, particularly if they're under the age of 12, is outside. Play is the work of childhood according to the godfather of positive parenting, Dr. David Elkind. Too much screen time can lead to an impoverished childhood, even in the most affluent neighbourhood or home.
In short, while there are all kinds of serious challenges that the online world brings (and yes, I'm speaking much more broadly than just about 'facebook'), one of my biggest concerns is that kids will waste their lives staring at an addictive, interactive, compelling screen. And there's plenty of research that argues persuasively that our children do better in life when they spend more time in the real world than in the virtual world.
Second, kids will thrive when they have supportive, engaged parents, and when they have opportunities for enrichment. The online world offers limited enrichment when compared with the 'real' world. We would do best to encourage real activities, real relationships, and real conversations in an offline context.
Third, there are the safety issues. Here are 5 BIG issues to consider regarding your children's online activities and involvement with facebook, whether it's accessed on smart phones, ipads, or any other technology:
Like it or not, cyberbullying is real and it affects most children in some way. This staggering example of bullying via the phone is becoming all too common. And it happens online in ways that are just as vicious and frightening. I've included a link to a superb video below that indicates the simple way that cyberbullying can occur, and get out of hand. Chilling - and a must watch.
2. Content that's not for kids.
I have been 'friended' on facebook by several of my friends' children. While I know that they will not see content on my page or in my updates that is inappropriate, I can't help but be almost certain that some of their other adult 'friends' may not be so mindful of what is posted. To add insult to this statement, one of my 'friends' under the age of 13 (and therefore too young for facebook according to facebook) posted material that I was stunned to see! Facebook provides too many opportunities for kids to be exposed to things they really should not see.
3. Facebook and the 'under 13' rule.
I've been unable to verify this 'officially', but I recently read that the only reason that facebook has a rule that children under the age of 13 cannot use it is related to USA laws related to the collection of personal information on young people. It has NOTHING to do with the best interests of your child! Facebook does not care how old your child is, or the extent to which exposure to inappropriate material may occur. Of course they do respond to complaints about inappropriate material, but by then it's often too late - especially if it is your child.
4. Do you 'really' know your friends?
Several of the kids that have friended me on facebook, because their parents are my friends, have as many as 40 other friends in common with me. I suspect that they're friends with many, many of their parents' friends. But how well do you really know all your friends? While it's unlikely, it is not impossible that your child could become friends with one of your friends, or even your friends' friends (privacy settings can allow friends of friends to get access to your lists at times). Issues to do with keeping your child safe are magnified substantially under such circumstances. Private messages can be sent by strangers to your child. Attachments can be added to those messages and sent to your child - by those strangers who are friends, or friends of friends. Personal information can be obtained from your child, and so on.
5. Social and Developmental Psychology
Young children are simply not developed sufficiently to deal with the immediacy of facebook and all that electronic media entails. Simple face-to-face squabbles are challenging enough. When we incorporate the 'nowness' of the virtual world with the distance (perceived) and even a sense of anonymity (which can be easily manufactured) children struggle to inhibit anti-social impulses, and get easily swept up in whatever issues are present before them. Our young children - and even some grown-ups I know (myself included from time to time) may struggle with the maturity to deal with what the electronic media offer them.
Oh, and there's the addictive aspects as well.
While this article is principally about facebook, the concerns extend to other media including email, mobile phones (watch this amazing video and follow the story), and the Internet more generally.
I suggest the following to keep your children safe:
First, keep the computer in a public place in the house. Never allow computers (including laptops and mobile phones with connectivity) into the bedroom.
Second, use one of the various Internet monitor applications that are available to see which sites your kids are visiting, and discuss it with them.
Third, keep screen time (of all varieties) to a reasonable level. Most researchers agree that kids under two should have no screen time, kids from two to twelve are typically best with between half an hour and an hour a day, and high school kids should have under two hours per day.
Fourth, life will typically be easier (despite the occasional squabble) if children stay off facebook until 13. Once they are on facebook, be their online friend, monitor them, and offer gentle guidance.
Finally, keep communication open. If something bad happens, don't threaten to remove technology privileges. This will only push the behaviour underground, making it deeper and harder to observe. Instead, talk, talk, talk, and listen! Lots!
As an example, you could show your children just how fast online challenges can escalate. The links, youtubes, and stories in this post can be used as helpful educational tools. Educate, educate, educate.
When it comes to Internet safety, be a helicopter parent... hover, hover, hover. Be over their shoulder and know what they're doing. (And get used to seeing POS written in their chat - it means Parent Over Shoulder).
(Be aware of what your kids might be exposed to during sleepovers too).
We can't bubble-wrap our kids, but we can protect them from the negative effects that the cyberworld throws in their direction by being aware, and following the guidelines outlined here.