Facing the realities of social networking and kids


Claire McCarthy,MD

A law proposed in California would require that social networking sites like Facebook take down content from the profiles of children under 18 if their parents request it.

On the flip side: Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, thinks that more children under 13 should be allowed to join social network sites. He says that they offer educational opportunities, and that children can learn from each other.

So who is right? Should kids be kept off Facebook until they are 18—or allowed on it when they are 8?

I don’t think either one is right.

Parents absolutely have a right to be concerned about their kids being on social networking sites. We hear story after story of cyberbullying. Or online predators. Spending too much time on social network sites can lead to poor grades (from the pure distraction of it) or even depression. And there are practical dangers such as identity theft.

Kids do dumb stuff everywhere, so it’s not surprising that they do dumb stuff online. Earlier this month a 13-year-old from New Hampshire got suspended for five days for saying on Facebook that she wished Osama bin Laden had killed her math teacher (a parent of a friend of hers saw the post and alerted the school). Or—my personal favorite—a couple of years ago, two girls (ages 10 and 12) stuck in a storm drain in Australia didn’t use their cell phones to call for help. Instead, they used their phones to update their Facebook status to say that they were lost in a storm drain (luckily a friend saw it and called for help).

But keeping kids off social networking sites misses two important points.

First, kids are going to get onto them no matter what we do. Although the COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) prohibits children from under 13 from signing up for sites that collect information about them, it’s easy to get around that: you change your birthday. And according to a June 2011 survey from Consumer Reports, millions of kids do just that. Of the 20 million minors who use Facebook, 7.5 million, or roughly one-third, are under 13. In fact, 5 million are 10 or younger.

Second, at some point kids turn 18. It’s hard to start teaching them how to behave online when they aren’t obligated to show you anything—and when many are leaving home for college.

Social networking on the Internet has become part of life. And as with anything that is part of life, it’s our job as parents to teach our children what they need to know about it.

It’s hard to teach something you don’t know—so if you aren’t familiar with social networking sites and how they work (especially how privacy settings work), get familiar with them. This may involve signing up for one if you haven’t done so already, so you can try stuff out yourself.

Consumer Reports recommends that parents of children under 13 whose children have accounts with Facebook get those accounts deleted by reporting them (using a “Report an Underage Child” form). If their child is over 13, they suggest that parents have their child “friend” them so that they can monitor what they do online (which does involve signing up, so it will be useful if you have already).

While this is great advice, I don’t think it’s enough (after all, kids are tech-savvy and email addresses are easy to come by, so it’s easy to make a new profile). Here’s what I would add:

  • Keep the computer in a public place. Don’t let your child escape to his bedroom with a laptop.
  • Have limits on screen time (made much easier if the computer is in a public place). Less time online means less time for getting into trouble.
  • If your children are on a social networking site, make sure they’re using all the privacy settings they can—and talk to them about making good decisions about who they friend” (it should only be people they know personally and well)
  • Most important: talk to your kids about what they should and shouldn’t post online. It’s not just about giving information to predators or thieves. Anything they put there is functionally there forever, and everything can be misunderstood. Help them think through how words can hurt—or what an admissions officer or employer might think about their posts and pictures (this is something that lots of grownups don’t seem to grasp).

For more advice on how to help your child use social network sites wisely, visit the websites of the Federal Trade Commission or the American Academy of Pediatrics.