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.