My ten year old son has asked to join Facebook. While my response was a firm “no,” my resolve is wavering the more he asks. After all, lots of kids have joined the world’s most popular social network – including several of my son’s friends. Am I just being paranoid?
I decided to examine this issue a little more carefully. My son, Michael, is three years younger than the requisite 13 year old minimum. Facebook clearly states that individuals must be at least that age before they can create an account. Although the rule is not stringently enforced, the social network provides clear instructions to parents on how to delete the account of his or her underage child.
They furthermore warn that any accounts reportedly set up for a child will be deleted immediately. Since my son falls in this delinquent category, I would have to condone him lying about his age to circumvent the rules (not something I like to encourage unless it means free admission into a Disney Park.)
The biggest concern for myself, as I’m sure for all parents, is privacy. Thanks to the efforts of Canada’s own privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, Facebook has vastly improved its security settings. Almost every component of a person’s Facebook page can now be set to “friends only” or “me only.” And, the network automatically excludes all “teen” users (or those pretending to be teens) from being found through search engines. This adds an extra layer of security that is not provided to its older members.
On the other hand, some elements of a profile are always available to everyone on Facebook, no matter what the age. These are the user’s name, profile pictures, gender, and any networks they belong to. This is the internet, after all – better known for exposing information than hiding it. I really doubt my son will spend much time posting updates about his life, anyways. He’s more interested in playing the games, also known as “apps.”
Not too long ago, Facebook faced scorn when it was revealed that some of their most popular apps were sharing users’ personal data with advertisers. As a result, the network improved its privacy settings there, too. Parents can help their child select privacy preferences for each individual app. This provides peace of mind to worried parents like me, yet still I wonder, does Michael really need another incentive to park his rear in front of a screen?
“Places” is a lesser known feature of the network that allows a mobile device with GPS to indicate where the Facebook user is hanging out. It’s enough to strike fear into any mom. Although this service is not automatically turned on when joining the network, it can be activated if a friend tags him at a location. By disabling “Friends can check me in to Places,” parents can avoid this altogether.
With some time and effort, I can create a profile for my son that is relatively safe (for the internet) yet there still remains the “social” decorum of online networking. And if his table manners are any indication of how he’ll behave online, I think I’m in trouble. While my son might think it funny to post a silly comment on his friend’s wall, if the wording is misinterpreted by another, he could find himself in a heap of trouble.
In "A Parents’ Guide to Facebook", Collier & Magic explain that for the majority of youth, online social networking is a reflection of offline life. So, if one’s child has a healthy social life at school, chances are his online life will remain healthy, too. However, for one who suffers social troubles at school, online social networks can amplify those problems very quickly and detrimentally.
As a parent, all this work to keep my son safe online seems overwhelming. So, for now, I’m going to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s advice and wait until my son is 13. I think the guy knows what he’s talking about.