Underage on FacebookWhat are millions of children under 13 doing on the social networking giant? Their parents aren't exactly sure, and that's what's so frightening.
Rebecca Coleman, a writer and mother of two who lives outside of Washington, DC, was bustling about the kitchen making dinner when her 11-year-old daughter called out to her. "Mom, I got a friend request from some man," she said, typing away on the living room computer. "Should I accept it?" Her daughter threw out a name Coleman had never heard. "Do we have any mutual friends?" Coleman called back. They did not. "Do you know him?" She asked her daughter. The answer was no—which was all Coleman needed to hear. "No," she told her daughter, rushing into the room. "No, no, no!"
For Coleman and her fifth-grader, it was just another day on Facebook, a site that has turned the family computer into a portal to the Wild West. Perils large (the potential pedophile) and small (the temptation to overshare) await each time she logs on. Sometimes Coleman catches her daughter's missteps before they happen; other times she's a little late. She would have liked, for example, to have had the chance to edit this recent status update: "Lice is itchy."
Use of the site among children ages 8 to 12 is skyrocketing: 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 are on Facebook, according to research in Consumer Reports last June, and some 5 million of those are 10 and under. A study published this November in First Monday, an academic journal, found that 55 percent of parents with a 12-year-old reported that their child had a Facebook account, and of those parents, a majority—76 percent—had helped them set it up. Because Facebook, in keeping with a law designed to protect children's privacy, will not allow anyone under the age of 13 on the site, that means those parents most likely sat with their children as they typed in a fake birthday so they could get on and join the crowd.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, has hinted that he hopes the laws will change so that kids can sign up sooner. But for millions of young people, the site has already become as much a part of their days as algebra, soccer practice, and iCarly. Facebook is doing nothing short of changing the experience of childhood, preserving it in electronic amber and documenting it in real time. Kids have always been exposed to risk, to embarrassing themselves, to making bad judgment calls, but never before have those mistakes been so public and so permanent. "They're more indelible than if you chiseled them into the walls of the Parthenon," points out Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed. Every "like" to a cruel comment, every failed attempt at humor on someone's wall—on Facebook, they live forever.
The site presents a complicated decision tree for many parents, especially those with kids under 13: Should they let their children join the site, and if they do, with what boundaries? The stakes are high, the costs of either choice real. Allowing a child on Facebook exposes him or her to the inherent risks of life online. Denying access can deepen that child's social isolation—she won't just miss the party invitation, she'll miss the pictures, the comments, and the inside jokes that follow.
When parents ask themselves the question "What's the worst thing that could happen on Facebook?" they might flash to the possibility of a sexual predator or some other stranger worming his way into a child's world—the scenario that could have played out for Coleman's daughter, had her mother not been in the loop. But what parents really have to grasp is the far more likely source of trouble for their child: all those other kids on Facebook.
FRIENDS AND FRENEMIES
Boys and girls alike use Facebook, and boys and girls alike abuse it. For boys, the site can be a place to try the kind of macho posturing they would never attempt in the school yard. The results, however, play out in real life, as one Jersey City, NJ, 14-year-old found out last March. He reportedly was using Facebook to intimidate two 12-year-old boys because he was upset over a girl. He threatened, among other things, to tie one boy to a pole with a rope, attach the rope to his stomach and to a car, and drive off, so that his body would rip apart. Said face-to-face, it might sound like the worst kind of adolescent hyperbole; written on Facebook, it landed him in police custody.
But there are key differences in how boys and girls experience Facebook, especially younger girls, according to the latest report from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project: One out of every three girls ages 12 to 13 who uses social media says that people her age are "mostly unkind" to one another on social network sites. Only one out of 11 boys feels the same way.
"All the research suggests that within middle school kids under 12, girls manipulate each other on Facebook much worse than boys," said Danah Boyd, a professor of communications at New York University who writes extensively on the issue of young people and the Internet. "A lot of what you'll hear from girls is, 'I was just joking around,'" she says. "And then things escalate."
There is apparently no such thing as too young to flame—and Facebook is a particularly combustible setting. The younger the child, says John Duffy, a clinical psychologist in La Grange, IL, who specializes in teens and tweens, the more brutal the language she may use. "A girl 9, 10, 11—she's too young to understand the repercussions," he says. Girls lob words the way they slingshot Angry Birds, but what comes crashing down is another girl's confidence. "At that age, her self-esteem is just being established," Duffy explains. "She has nothing to stand on."
One of his clients, a 12-year-old girl, had to switch schools after a Facebook page was created specifically to humiliate her. "It was called 'Hate' and then her initials," says Duffy. The girl had been bullied already, but it was the public nature of all those comments that left her sobbing in his office. Another of his clients, a popular 14-year-old girl, casually informed him that with one Facebook posting, she could ruin the life of any girl she chose. "She told me that all she'd have to say was so-and-so was a slut or ugly or a loser," Duffy recalls.
In Sydney, Australia, in 2010, a family turned frantic when, for two weeks, an anonymous someone sent the mother, her 12-year-old daughter, and the girl's friend pornographic images and threatening messages on Facebook. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, when the federal police got involved, they discovered that the stalker was another 12-year-old girl.
In Issaquah, WA, earlier this year, an 11-year-old and 12-year-old girl spent an afternoon they had off from school humiliating Leslie Coté, another 12-year-old girl, on Facebook. They broke into her account, posted lewd messages on her wall, and used her account to invite boys to come over to her house for sex, so it appeared as if she was sending those messages herself (they also included her phone number and home address). Leslie's parents pressed charges, including trespassing and cyberstalking, and the older of the two tormentors was sentenced to community service and probation.
"Our daughter was on Facebook, and we monitored it closely," says Leslie's mother, Tara. Leslie's stepfather had even checked her news feed a few times on his phone the day the abuse happened but had seen nothing amiss. "The girls were sophisticated," Tara explains. "They de-friended anyone they knew was a relative, so it didn't come up on our feeds. It's just so easy to hide behind a computer screen and bash somebody." Even so, her daughter is still on Facebook; Leslie wanted to stay on the site, and her parents see no reason why she shouldn't be. "She didn't do anything wrong," says her stepfather.
Even a perfectly normal day on Facebook—one that wouldn't necessarily provoke, say, a police investigation—entails new levels of stress for girls, says Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out and an educator who runs anti-bullying workshops. "It doesn't introduce new insecurities, but it amplifies the ones that are already there. Just at the age when they are starting to figure out what a best friend means, and feeling desperately afraid of losing that friend, they are being exposed to lots of anxiety triggers." Who has more "friends"? Whose status update is getting more "likes"? It's all there for everyone to see.
"Girls 'marry' and break up with each other over the course of a day, all in hopes of illustrating their popularity," says Katie Cappiello, the writer and co-director of a play called Facebook Me, which is based on the real experiences of girls online. "It's incredibly distracting." But Cappiello finds it even more troubling that "at a time in life when girls are trying to figure out who they are, they're busy developing a dual identity. They spend hours trying to capture the 'perfect' profile shot or to craft the 'perfect' comment." Real life may be messy, but on Facebook, the illusion of control is irresistible.
CAN YOU "FRIEND" YOUR KID?
Plenty of experts eagerly critique mothers and fathers who choose to help children under 13 set up Facebook accounts. But can millions of parents all be wrong, or are there some real benefits to acknowledging the technology and actively guiding children through it?
When her daughter nearly friended a stranger, Coleman treated it as a teachable moment. "She's making mistakes while she's still listening to me and in plain sight," she says. The longer a parent waits, the less chance he or she might have to educate, Coleman points out. "It's riskier to hold off until they're 13 or 14—when they already think you're an idiot—and then say, 'Okay, now you can have a Facebook account.'"
Some experts acknowledge that for parents who can access their child's Facebook page and are willing to take the time to check it regularly, the site can provide invaluable insight. "Instead of following breadcrumbs to see where our children have been online, we get an instant window into their social world," says Michelle Anthony, a psychologist and coauthor of Little Girls Can Be Mean.
When a pal of her daughter's posted gushy status updates about how much she loved her (older) boyfriend, it was a cue for Coleman to start a conversation about age differences between boys and girls who are romantically involved. "Because of Facebook, I have a much better idea of who her friends are, and which ones I might look out for—which ones are trustworthy and which ones have parents who clearly aren't paying attention," she says. Do kids say things on Facebook that they wouldn't blurt out in the backseat of a car on the way to gymnastics? Absolutely, which means that parents can get the same rare access into a child's life outside the home that they might get from a diary (minus the guilt of snooping).
Carol Specht, a mother in Mundelein, IL, felt comfortable allowing her 11-year-old daughter on Facebook; like many parents, she thought it was a wholesome way for her child to communicate with cousins and friends who live out of town. The thing she finds troubling about the site is the way it literalizes the girls' social lives: the photos, right there for all to see, of events that some children may not have been invited to. "I see things and think, Well, I bet she would have liked to have done what they're doing." Her daughter doesn't seem troubled—after all, not everyone can be at every event—but Specht is glad she is aware of tensions that could kick up in the future.
Anthony does worry that parents overestimate their ability to patrol their child's use of Facebook and underestimate how quickly a world on Facebook expands. Your 11-year-old may be friends with a 13-year-old who is friends with a 15-year-old who posts on the 13-year-old's wall, she points out. Now your 11-year-old is socializing with the 15-year-old, via that mutual friendship.
"The real problem is that they are exposed to issues they are not prepared to handle, not because they are immature but because they are the right maturity for age 10," says Anthony. "Yes, they're already exposed to racy subjects on television, but now they're participants." Naomi Reid, a mother of four in Wichita, KS, was alarmed to see her 11-year-old stepdaughter posting—no doubt, reposting—a quiz on her Facebook page that asked questions like "If you snuck into my room?" and offered answers like "cuddle" and "partyyyy!"
The knee-jerk answer for parents of children under 13, or even older, might be to keep them off Facebook. Not so fast, says Danah Boyd of NYU. Parents have to acknowledge that there can be painful consequences if their kids are excluded from using the site in a community where it's the main means of socializing. "You can enforce a ban on Facebook, but at what cost?" she asks. "My mom kept me from the mall, which is where all my friends hung out, and then she had to deal with me being a wreck because people didn't invite me to anything anymore. There is no one norm. You have to assess the dynamics of your community—and your own child's maturity."
RULES OF THE ONLINE ROAD
Should a parent decide to allow a child under 13 on Facebook, many experts agree on some guidelines. Parents who help set up a child's account should walk the child through the privacy settings, and choose strict ones: settings, for example, that will not allow anyone but friends to see status updates, photos, or comments that the child makes to other friends. They should also explain the limits of those protections to the child—that a photo she posts can be copied by a so-called friend and sent out into the universe. Parents should insist on being friends with their child, but even more importantly, also know her password so they can periodically check to make sure they haven't been blocked.
That said, researchers also suggest that parents refrain from posting on their children's walls. "Parents and kids don't fully understand the tricky dynamics of each other's social worlds," Ann Collier, the cofounder of Connect Safely, an Internet forum devoted to the issue of children's safety online, has noted. Embarrass your child once and you may lose privileges for good, possibly without knowing it.
Lisa Damour, a psychologist and the director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, OH, suggests that if parents have a trusted older girl in the family's life—a favorite responsible babysitter, a beloved cousin—they ask her to talk to their children about Facebook. Were there mistakes she and her friends have made? "Adolescents often glaze over when being coached by adults on how to use Facebook, but they listen with rapt attention to advice coming from a 'cool' older cousin or family friend," she says.
It may be that the next generation of kids will have an easier time on Facebook, that schools will figure out how to educate them about using it with sensitivity and restraint. It seems even more likely that some other technological revolution will bring a new set of parental headaches. Lori Bongiorno, a mom in Brooklyn, NY, notes that some kids her 13-year-old daughter knows are augmenting Facebook accounts, which their families can search for by name, with Tumblr blogs, which are harder to track, when they want to post racier material.
Bongiorno's daughter, Eliza, is not a manic Facebook user, nor the target of bullying, nor someone who agonizes over every status update she posts. She does admit, however, to losing precious time to the site. "I mean to go on for 10 minutes," she says. "Then suddenly it's 20, or even more." She gets caught up in other kids' photos and in endless Facebook conversations. She is exhausted by all of it. "I feel bad," she admits, "like it's a waste of my life."
Asked if there was anything her mom could do to make Facebook less stressful, Eliza surprises herself by having an answer. "I wish she would put limits on how much I use it," she confesses. "Because I can't help myself."
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