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Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD

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Kids Under 13 on Facebook? Not So Fast!

Posted: 06/05/2012 10:37 am

So, by now you've heard the buzz: Facebook wants to allow kids under 13 into their social media club. Here's what you may not know, or remember: This isn't new news. In fact, a year ago this month, Mark Zuckerberg made the exact same statement just as a report came out shedding light that 7.5 million kids under 13 were using his site.

I remember the issue well because I did a huge amount of interviews on the topic, such as this one with TIME magazine. In these interviews, I made it very clear that allowing kids under 13 onto Facebook is not a good idea -- and I wasn't alone in my opinion.

Has a year changed my position at all? No. In fact, given the events of the last year, I feel more strongly than a year ago that kids under 13 should not be on Facebook. The environment on Facebook is even more difficult to navigate than it was a year ago with even more privacy concerns. The staggering amount of ads clearly tailored to our searches. The push to play games and spend money on games and apps is much more pronounced and noticable than a year ago and the ability to get help should someone act inappropriately, bully someone, is simply not there. There is no help button clearly visible, for example.

These are not insignificant issues. As an adult, these issues are concerning. It's challenging enough to explain to our teenagers how to undertand these issues, how to exist on Facebook in a way that is fun but protects their privacy and digital footprints while also keeping them safe. To explain these issues to a child younger than 13 who doesn't have the life experience or developmental ability to abstract enough to make sense of the virtual environment -- or understand the complex interactions and the long-term impacts of what they post publicly -- is simply not feasible nor possible. They are truly too young.

Sherry Turkle explained it best in the TIME magazine article for which we were both interviewed last year: "Facebook is a place where you let adolescents go when they're ready to be unsupervised... It's like getting the keys to the cars."

I use the same car analagy in CyberSafe. When we teach our teens how to drive, we do so with care and with a plan, using age milestones that are based on not just the law, but development. We make sure our kids are old enough to undertand the rules of the road and have prior experience with other, more simple modes of transportation, including walking and riding a bike. We make sure they take driver's education, pass a test and gain experience before they take those keys and drive off.

If we allow our kids to drive without the necessary steps met before they get their license, mistakes will occur and accidents will happen. The same is true for social media sites like Facebook. It's when we give them those keys to Facebook too young, without social media driver's ed, that harm occurs -- their privacy is compromised, a permanent digital footprint made, cyber-bullying takes place or inappropriate content posted.

This isn't about parental choice and allowing kids to play games. This is about a large social media site wanting more users for their financial model to work out. Keep in mind that the ones pushing this plan are often on the Facebook payroll and have no background in child health and development.

Our job as parents isn't to say "yes" to everything our kids want, bending the rules and allowing others to do the same. Our job is to help our kids realize that there is a reason that age-limits exist and respecting those limits is what makes our society work and allow us to develop and grow as members of that society. So, just as our kids have to wait to be the right age to drive, drink and vote, let's help them understand that in today's world, they also have to wait to be the right age to use Facebook. They'll survive -- and be better off for it.

 
 
 

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