My six-year-old’s class is opening a Facebook account – what should I do?

Michael RichMichael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. (Visit their newly redesigned website here.) Send him a media-related parenting question via and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: My 6 year-old daughter’s class is opening a Facebook account. They are spinning it as an “exciting new way to expose 1st graders to social media” and to help them learn to use it responsibly at a young age. The class will post photos, news, and videos of the children, and parents and relatives can read and send messages back. Some of this will be followed in the classroom on a big TV screen. Is there any scientific information on how exposure to social media affects very young children? I worry that many children already get too much screen time, and I see no reason to promote or teach social media until they are much older. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for kids this age to learn how to play with and respect each other—in person? Or how about having parents come in and read a story or share a personal interest instead? Isn’t there value in keeping young children young?

-Face-off with Facebook, in San Francisco, CA

A: Dear Face-off,

Using social media in the classroom can have many benefits, like helping reinforce students’ sense of community and keeping parents up to date on school activities. But that’s probably all it will do for young children. Kids will learn responsible use when they are actually driving that use, and 6 year olds aren’t developmentally ready for that responsibility (nor are they allowed to use social media, such as Facebook, on their own before age 13).

This could be a good time to hear from teachers about their hopes for this program. An important component of school is learning how to socialize; your daughter is learning how to form relationships, become part of a community, and interact with others face-to-face.  Ask her teachers how they will use online interaction to do that—and how they will balance it with direct experience.

You can also offer your own suggestions for in-person connections, or even ways of using social media that you do think would be worthwhile—like your idea of having parents come in and read a story. Social media could allow kids to invite far-away family members to participate over video chat.

Lastly, get to know the social media your daughter’s class will be using. Many popular social media networks have help centers and may even provide tools and resources for educators. Be sure to ask about privacy policies, both for the school and for the social network. Even many password-protected social networking sites struggle to truly protect privacy because photos and other information are often easy to download or capture and share with others outside of your intended audience. If your school decides to publish images of student life on a social media site, ask how they plan to address privacy risks. Most likely you will be able to work with your school’s administration to ensure that your child’s information will be protected.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®