Facebook may soon allow kids 13 and younger to get their own, parent-supervised accounts. Is it because, as the company is quick to point out, they're using Facebook anyway? Or is it because Facebook wants to get future generations hooked on social networking as soon as possible? Probably both.
Here's the case for granting elementary-schoolers Minifeed access: although Facebook bans users under 13, around 7.5 million children under that age already use the site, including more than five million who are under the age of 10. Often times, parents are A-OK with letting their children "friend" each other and post statuses even if it's illegal. And Facebook says it's just not up to the monitoring task. "Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services," Facebook told the Wall Street Journal. "We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."
Stakeholders, you say? Ah, yes: as the WSJ points out, "Concerns have been growing over Facebook's ability to sustain the 88% revenue growth it achieved last year via advertising, especially in the wake of its troubled initial public offering." If Facebook lets kids sign up, the company and its partners could enter the lucrative children's games market. (What else would 10-year-olds want to do on Facebook, anyway? Humblebrag about how many handball games they've won?) But of course that's not something the company would ever openly admit. Nah, it's just that kids are gonna do what they're gonna do, and what power does poor little Facebook possibly have?
Emily Bazelon puts it well at Slate:
"Facebook is interested in kids because it wants to encourage them to share widely, as early in their lives as possible, because that's good for the company's market share, now and in the future...This is a company under pressure to increase profits — and one whose record with teenagers doesn't demonstrate that it's a good place for younger kids to grow up."
As she points out, it's not like all kids are on Facebook, or even most of them: only 45 percent of 12-year-olds said they'd joined a social network of some kind, compared with 82 percent of 13-year-olds. And K.J. Dell'Antonia makes another good point over at Motherlode: "As a parent, the biggest difference I see between a Facebook that allows children and one that doesn't would be that more children on Facebook would mean more social pressure to join."
Kids engage in a lot of sneaky activities that are against the law, some more dangerous than others: they sneak into R-rated movies, eat junk food, drink beer and shoplift. Sometimes their parents know they're doing those things and are totally fine with it. Does that make it okay? Facebook can't argue that the site is dangerous for little kids because that would open up a whole other can of worms. But letting kids under 13 use the site isn't that different from putting cigarette ads up near schools: social networking is addictive, and studies prove it's detrimental to children. As James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, told the WSJ, "We don't have the proper science and social research to evaluate the potential pros and cons that social-media platforms are doing to teenagers. The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling."
It's impossible to ignore the statistics about how bad social media is for younger kids. Here are just some findings: 30 percent of 12-to-13-year-old girls said they saw kids being mostly unkind to each other on social network sites, 10 percent more than number of teens who reported such unkindness. More than one in four 12- and 13- year old girls answered "Yes" to the question, "Have you had a bad experience online that made you nervous about going to school the next day?" Girls aged 8 to 12 who use online media heavily are more likely to have fewer good feelings about their friendships than other girls their age as well as more friends whom their parents considered a bad influence. What's the proven secret to healthy emotional interactions? Face-to-face communication.
"Our research shows a link between face-to-face contact and good relationships because that's the best way to learn to read other people's emotions," Stanford professor Clifford Nass told Slate. "It's how kids learn empathy, and they have to practice. So it's like the in-person socializing is the healthy food, and Facebook is the empty calories. It's like junk food, and the more of it kids have, the less time they may have for the healthy stuff."
Now that we've established the hands-in-the-air, "Whatever can we do?" response from Facebook is bullshit — as Bazelon points out, why not just strengthen laws instead? — what's the rush? Kids, you have the rest of your life to experience FOMO and detag embarrassing photos. Go outside and play real tag instead.
Image via OKSun/Shutterstock.