Kids and Facebook (revisited)

My friend, Damon, wrote an insanely popular post to his own blog. Shortly after viewing a suggestive Facebook photo by his daughter’s online acquaintance (another 12 year old girl), he solicited readers to opine about preteens who post swimsuit “fashion” photos, pose suggestively, and then comment on each other’s “hotness”. He worries that it may invite unwarranted or even dangerous attention.

Of course, in no time at all, Moms & Dads were falling all over each other in their response. The feedback generally fell into these categories:

  • “My little Alice would never do anything like that!”
  • “I don’t allow Betty to use Facebook”
  • “Why doesn’t someone demand that Facebook police the age of users?”

Related: Filter a child from online porn? Stop worrying!

Damon

A feature in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses Facebook policy towards children. Depending upon on the news source, they are either thinking of granting access to kids under 13 – or not. Forbes says that access for preteens might make them safer. Of course, the truth is that Facebook has no way to tell the age of its users—nor should they care, except for purposes of marketing demographics. Policing an online audience achieves nothing and opens up the gatekeepers to all sorts of liability.

This might be a good time to review the stats: Nearly 40% of kids between 9 and 12 already have their own Facebook accounts. In fact, more than 5 million of these kids are under 10. The numbers will grow regardless of the ‘rules’, but the good news: This is a good thing. Kids and Facebook aren’t the problem. But parents are often a problem.

Ellery’s thoughts can be summarized in a pithy string of words: Parenting, closed circles, and reading the unredacted news together. And, oh yes…Did I mention, ‘parenting’?

Avoiding online predators

It’s easy to jump on the bandwagons of filters, censorship and parental controls. But restricting kids to online kiddie activities is rarely in order. Prohibitions rarely have the intended effect. Kids get what they want while parents encourage deceit and risk. Web savvy kids don’t need a Facebook account to post raunchy photos. Any eight year old with internet access can do it with ease.

A more practical solution begins like this: Keep PCs in an open and busy area of your living room or kitchen. Spend time with your kids. Talk about these things. Get them to close their circles (friends only). Know their friends and (depending upon age and responsibility) Friend them yourself (the one rule that I accept). But ultimately, trust them to do the right thing. If you lead by example—giving children a chance to be safe & responsible—you will be amazed at how responsible they can be.

Damon wondered Why Facebook doesn’t do a better job policing the age of its users.

Editor’s Note: Damon polled readers about a photo and comments posted
to Facebook by an early teen. Damon and some of his readers feel that
the posting is risky or inappropriate. But he did not advocate that it
is incumbent upon Facebook to police the age of its users. (I jumped
to that conclusion about his position). His poll was intended to spark
discussion. In fact, he agrees with my perspective below.

While it is tempting to blame web services for lax oversight, I really don’t think that it is realistic to expect them to police electronic traffic. It smacks of a Nanny state and it opens up every Blogger and hosting service to unwarranted liability. Facebook can no more be responsible for activity on your child’s page than the phone company can be responsible for foul language or bullying.

Imagine the maker of steak knives enforcing an “age policy”. With a sense of purpose and a massive effort, they have almost no influence over the individual family members that grab their utensil from kitchen drawers across the world. It is ludicrous to assume that Facebook could, would or even should police the age of users. That’s a job for parents! My pre-teen daughter has had a Facebook account since she could type. I accept it. It is a tool of the times. (Actually, it is an insanely useless and ill-crafted tool, but that’s beside the point). We talk frequently about appropriate use. I am included in her circles (and therefore, invited to monitor), and I continuously re-evaluate activities & venues as she matures. Facebook is many things: a Blog, a social gathering spot, a gaming site, an academic tool, and much more. Although I feel that the service has little benefit and lax standards, it is easy to monitor and it supports closed communities.

Facebook is popular with kids & soccer moms, but a lousy social network

But let’s face it, Bucko! It’s a social network and not a baby sitter. Gossip and even occasional raunch among close friends is to be expected. It’s much more important to talk with your kids, test your trust, and constantly reassess if your progeny is living up to your expectations.

You know the drill, ducks. So Sayeth Ellery. Tell me what you think.

Filter a child from online porn? Stop worrying

A columnist in my local newspaper recently lamented about the difficulty in “protecting” her child from online pornography. Her child wasn’t searching for the stuff, she explains. But porn is so pervasive in everyday media, that you needn’t search for it to be saturated with it. Not just the subtle innuendo of marketing & commerce—but the hard core variety and even the illegal variety. It appears in many web searches and it is often marketed in a deceptive manner designed to appear across all venues.

I really don’t want to get into a debate about porn, and so, in the past, I would bite my tongue on the issue. I have an unorthodox ap-proach to the issue of online safety, sexual stereotypes and child rearing.

But today, I was contacted by a porn-filtering organization that seeks my endorsement. Like spam filters (a necessary technology) they offer a technical approach to the problem. Of course, they don’t condemn my approach (it’s called parenting), but they claim that an electronic babysitter (I call it a censor) will block exposure to horrific content: Apparently, the potential exposure of a child or preteen to any image of a naked adult fits their definition of “horrific”.

I say, “Why bother?!” Exactly what is the goal of this shield? Will it protect your child’s values, chastity or save her from nightmares? In my opinion, it defeats all of these goals. And so, here is my response to the founder of a porn filtering vendor…
_____________

Hi Martin. On your web page for My Porn Blocker, you say:

“One day while at the dinner table my 7 year old daughter
asked me why some people are naked on the computer.
My wife and I nearly fell out of our chairs.”

Additionally, your marketing video begins with a description of your “horror” in finding a racy web site on your son’s PC.

I also have a young daughter and, of course, she occasionally comes across online pornography. After all, it is pervasive – and clearly – it is important to many adults

A naked human. I’m ruined for life!

(either the soft core type used for marketing, or the hard-core material that is a market unto itself). That’s why there is so much of it.

While I respect your desire to shield children from material you find offen-sive or contrary to your values, I am puzzled by parents seeking technical help in filtering what children see on the internet or in media. The answer is parenting. Of course, porn will continue to pop-up, even if you surf the web with your child. But consider a more thoughtful response to her curiosity. Why not answer truthfully and in a manner that is age appropriate?

  • Mommy! Why are there so many naked people on the internet?

There are many photos like these, because some adults like to view naked people. The world is filled with all sorts of different people. They have many different preferences – and viewing naked people is something that lots of people seem to enjoy.

  • What is this person doing? It looks painful!

No—They are not in pain. In fact, they are either having a lot of fun, or they are actors pretending to do these things. In either case, they are doing things that you are not ready for—both physically: it would hurt, and emotionally: you need to develop other types of relationships before you play the adult games shown in these pictures.

If you find the photos personally offensive, I won’t fault you for closing a sexy or violent web page before answering. But make no mistake: It is you who cannot handle the momentary exposure of off-topic content–and not her. As you move on to other web pages, you will be surprised by the maturity with which your child accepts an age-appropriate response.

Will she ask friends at school about the lewd photos? Of course! That’s life. Discussion is a healthy response to anything that is unexpected or shocking. But if you are consistent, loving and non-hysterical, your daughter will assess all available information through the lens of a consistent upbringing and shared family values.

We have used this approach with our child since she was 4. Since the age of 8, she has owned her own PC. We allow her to surf the web unattended. Although we don’t overtly monitor activity, the computer is in an open location. We have never felt it necessary to log and track the web sites that she visits – and we certainly don’t user filters.

Are we fooling ourselves? I doubt it. By 6 or 7, she was aware that sex is fun for adults and culturally pervasive. She knows that older teens talk about it frequently and she is peripherally aware that adults have individual, unique and sometimes very odd predilections. That is, they engage in a broad & seemingly bizarre array of behavior. Most kids figure this out because they listen to adults and because they are not blind to web sites & films that allude to unusual fetishes.

Should you care? I certainly don’t lose any sleep. My daughter will make up her mind about these things when her hormones and values tell her that it is time to explore. And even at 8 and 9, she realized this. As parents, we guide her to make the right decisions with our experience and insight, rather than attempt to censor web sites.

Prior to that time, I am convinced that shielding children from accidental exposure to porn is both futile and counterproductive. Only the parents are shocked. For a young child, porn lacks the prurient stimulus that it has for adults. It may prompt occasional questions or discussion with peers, but this is not a bad thing! Believe it or not, a consistent message at home will trump the input from a few dissenting peers.

I typically end these personal pearls of advice with the glib and über confident tag line: “So sayeth Ellery”…but not today. I realize that, like Martin, many WildDucks want to control their children and reinforce values by blocking content. For what it’s worth, you now have another side to this story. That’s my 2¢.

Worried about kids & social networks like Facebook?

Elllery’s response to:
10 things you don’t know about teens and social networking

Finally! An author who understands that secretly monitoring kids’ online activities doesn’t work. More importantly, it has unintended effects. Spying on your kids is not the answer. It is neither a substitute for active engagement (aka, parenting) nor does it buttress the effective approach: Leading by example and open discussion. In short, as with any issue, there is no substitute for parental involvement along with a growing bond of trust.

The online culture will not go away. In fact, it will become more pervasive as new gadgets and unexpected venues are attached to the internet. Culture will continue to evolve along with the medium, such as the spawning of social networks.

One teenager stated that the online world is more relevant to her than the “real” world. As scary as this sounds to parents, it isn’t necessary a bad thing. The online world is real. With nurturing and a little guidance, it may even help her to overcome obstacles in her immediate vicinity (health, bullies, career opportunity, etc).

Another child says that she feels safer online than offline, and she does things online that I she would not do in real life. Considered one way, this might be cause for alarm. Does this mean that she is likely to engage in risky behavior? Perhaps. But, it could simply mean that she is a “risk taker” in the vein of exploring her alternate personas and even confronting her inner demons. For her, the virtual world might allow her to develop as an individual in all venues.

The rise of a new social medium – one with a value that eludes many parents – is not bad. In general, it needn’t be cause for concern (Exception: the girl who lies to her Mom about spending time online while avoiding homework! Addiction to anything, not just the internet, is a weakness that is countered by parenting and strength.

Ellery Davies is chief editor of AWildDuck.com. He clarifies law and public policy.
He is also a parent of a preteen who is uses social networks.
Feedback is always welcome.