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Kari Henley Headshot

Should Kids Be Using Facebook?

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Two years ago, I got my first Facebook account, and wondered if Facebook friends were real friends. It was one of the most requested articles I have written for reprint. I then wrote about Facebook and our youth, and wondered if their brains were equipped to handle social networking, with a similar result. It seems lots of us are asking the same questions.

I have seen Facebook grow to world domination since then, become one of the hottest places to promote a business, and yet with confusing privacy settings and recent incidents of malware, I have to wonder if we are building a house of cards, and I continue to worry if Facebook is a safe place for our kids. Have we gotten so seduced by our addiction that we are exposing our children long before they are ready?

From 2009 until now, Facebook's story has won an Oscar, grown to a staggering 675 million users and counting, and even boasts of unborn children with new pages. Matt and Ellie Greene of Whitehouse, Texas, posted the ultrasound of their baby girl due in about the time of this printing, and created her own Facebook page. She already has over 250 friends and she has not yet taken her first breath.

I have friends who have created Facebook pages for all of their children, even kindergarteners who can barely read or write -- who are then are exposed to adult level photos, jokes and conversations. Tell me, how is this beneficial? While the brain reaches full physical growth by age twelve, the frontal cortex does not complete growth until age 25 -- meaning kids and young adults do not think before they post.

If kids had to paint a t-shirt with their posts and wear it around for 24 hours, they may think twice, but Facebook posts are instant -- and permanent. Many young adults are now paying the price as they enter the workforce. A recent CNN story titled "Young job-seekers hiding their Facebook pages", cites that "A recent survey commissioned by Microsoft found that 70 percent of recruiters and hiring managers in the United States have rejected an applicant based on information they found online."

My high school age son communicates almost exclusively through Facebook, and makes fun of me for using email. I asked him if he still uses email to talk to his friends. He sighed and replied that email has become passé, and, "Only something you use to talk to your grandma who doesn't have an inbox." Curious, I interviewed several high school students, and all agreed they share stories, post photos and maintain conversations solely in Facebook. Yet, their emotions around the new norm were mixed. Many admitted to anxiety from cyber bullying; mainly in the form of rank profanities slung around with wild abandon. Some even disable their account during school hours for fear of what will be posted about them during the day.

My 12-year-old has been begging to have a Facebook account, and whines that all-of-her-friends have Facebook pages and she is the only-one-who-doesn't. She does not have a cell phone either -- and truly is one of the few kids left in the technology desert. I had a moment of weakness, and relented. When we tried to set up her account, the birthdates started a year after she was born. What a pleasant surprise to see that Facebook set up a policy that no one under age 13 can open an account, and yet how lame it is not more widely known, and one simple shift of a click is the only barrier. She worked around it in a millisecond.

According to recent polls, over 7.5 million American kids are under age 13 have Facebook pages, and over five million are under age ten. The New York Times reported in March of this year that 3.6 million of Facebook's 153 million monthly visitors in the U.S. are under 12.

In a recent statement by Facebook:

"Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don't circumvent a system or lie about their age," the Facebook press release said in a written statement. "We appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online."

Over the past year, Consumer Reports said more than five million online households in the U.S. have been subjected to some kind of Internet abuse, such as virus infections and identity theft, via Facebook. About one million children who went on Facebook were exposed to bullying, the survey found. One million is too much. Is it Facebook's fault, or our lack of imagination in finding and using alternative sites for our youth to safely learn to navigate the inevitable waters of social networking?

Social networking is here to stay, and helping our youth learn how to use it properly can prevent unnecessary bullying, inappropriate behavior and teaches children to communicate responsibly. Vince Cannistraro is a successful entrepreneur and parent of three who attended an Internet safety presentation at his children's school in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and was bothered that there was no safe and secure online social networking option for kids. He felt that today's youth would benefit from being prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the digital world.

Within a few months, he set out to create the very site his children and kids everywhere could safely enjoy. He recruited Katie Greer, Internet Safety Program Coordinator for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office and Intelligence Analyst, to ensure that the site was safe (and fun) for kids in every facet of its design. The site is called WhatsWhat.me (Beta) a "kids-only" Website that provides safe, secure social networking for kids ages 7 to 13 ("tweens") and utilizes patent-pending facial recognition technologies, moderation and kid-friendly features. WhatsWhat.me fosters an age-appropriate, "no-bullying allowed" community while teaching positive online behavior, Internet safety and related life skills.

I test drove the site with my twins who are nearly eight, and my oh-so-tweenish twelve year old. The site was fun, similar in set up to Facebook, and captivated the younger set with cool games, and the competition of earning points for prizes. They loved the goofy videos posted, and I liked that they were only allowed to interact with kids within one year of their age on the site. It was a tougher sell to my older one, yet with few alternatives to the deep waters of Facebook, the ability to meet friends, post photos, and write on a "wall" is a great option.

Live human moderation stays on top of all posts, and offers, "teachable moments" when something inappropriate is put up. No adults are allowed on the site, yet a parent resource page is filled with excellent information, some in sixty second podcasts to explain mysteries such as "cyber sex."

"Many parents either bury their heads in the sand or are in denial they need to have an active participation in their children's online activity," said Greer. "They all are going to make bad decisions at some point, and need to be empowered instead of just taking it away."

What are your latest feelings about Facebook and do you have stories of youth and their experience with social networking? Love to ramp up a 2011 discussion in the comment box below. And, oh yes, follow me on Facebook to continue the conversation there as well!

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