Mommy, Just One More Status Update Before Bed!
What should you do when your children ask for a Facebook account? Panic. Because how are you supposed to guide kids through the untamed digital wilderness when they know more about it than you do?
And that’s when things got complicated. A kid at school started raging at her daughter and two of her friends over e-mail, using inappropriate language. The girls didn’t know how to handle it, so they and their mothers got together. “We had a conversation about how you don’t let people treat you like that, and if you receive an e-mail like that you just, blanket, don’t respond to it,” the Arlington mom tells me. “You take it offline, you make a phone call, but it does not continue through e-mail or texting.”
Now the daughter is asking for a Facebook page. Not until she’s 13, her mother tells her. That’s the age a person has to be before her personal information can be collected and sold to advertisers, according to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which was passed in 1998. And so that, it turns out, is the minimum age at which kids are allowed to join Facebook. But parents help their kids lie about their age all the time so they can get on early. (According to Consumer Reports, there are 7.5 million kids younger than 13 on Facebook.)
Of course, even parents who follow COPPA can’t always keep their kids off. One day the Arlington mom’s daughter came home from school and said someone else had created a Facebook page for her. Alarmed, the mother sat down at the computer and opened the page. There, for all the world to see (literally — there were no privacy settings enabled), were her daughter’s name, birthday, and the name of the boy who’d created the account — who, in a ballsy move, had listed himself as the girl’s boyfriend. “I was furious,” the mother says. “I think it’s really creepy that anyone would set up that sort of announcement to the world that they’re in a relationship with your child.” Then she lowers her voice. “So you know what I did? In a fit of annoyance, I reported it to Facebook administrators as a page that’s impersonating someone that my daughter’s not — because technically it was — and the page was taken down.”
So what does this mean for her daughter’s future on Facebook? “We talked about it this weekend,” she says. “I said that if she really wanted this thing, we would work toward her getting it. She agreed to a few things: She has to be 13, she has to bring her math grade back up to an A-, and she has to friend me.”
Research shows that this mother is right to adopt a firm stance. Sahara Byrne and Theodore Lee, from Cornell University’s Department of Communication, have found that the best
predictor for successfully protecting children from trouble online is the ease of communication between parents and kids. And who do kids have the easiest time communicating with? Authoritarian parents, Byrne and Lee found, not the permissive ones (you know, the ones who pull mom-jujitsu moves in the kitchen).
The Arlington mother’s strategy of insisting that her kids friend her on Facebook is a common one (though one father told me he would never post or comment on his son’s wall because “that’s like jumping into the flock of birds you’re observing — they’ll just fly away”). But Sherry Turkle, the renowned MIT professor, disagrees with the mom’s tactic. Turkle, who specializes in the social studies of science and technology, wrote the book (literally — it’s called Alone Together) on how technology affects us and our relationships.
“I think it’s a private place, and I think adolescents need to have a private place,” she tells me. “I am not my daughter’s friend on Facebook. I’m not her friend — I’m her mother.” She goes on: “A very wise woman once said to me, ‘You have to let a child grow up in the generation that they grow up in.’ And I think that for parents to try to get their children to not grow up appropriately in this generation is both futile and in error. And a child who feels that they can’t have privacy on Facebook will find another social-media site on which they have privacy.”
Turkle’s statement echoes an article I’d just read in which kids were turning to cell-phone apps like Instagram and Versagram to communicate because their parents didn’t understand them well enough to monitor their use. And, as if to prove Turkle’s point, a few days later a friend puts me in touch with her sister, who tells me, “I just said to my friend, ‘Hey, your daughter’s on Facebook! She’s been sending me messages!’ And she’s like, ‘Yep, that’s the politically correct page. She has another one where she and her friends are all licking their way up Astro Pop popsicles for their boyfriends to see on their profile pictures.’”
These issues are getting thorny awfully fast, and I still haven’t figured out what the right, rather than legal, age is for a kid to be on Facebook. So I call the man who should have the answer: Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a website that rates all kinds of youth-focused media for age appropriateness. He’s also just written a book called Talking Back to Facebook. So I ask him: Is 13 old enough to join Facebook? There’s a distinct leap in his voice, like he may have found an ally. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I personally think 15 or 16 is when kids have more judgment and can take most advantage of the positive aspects of a social-networking platform.”
Steyer believes that parents need to know, and share with their children, what happens with all those Facebook photos of kids licking their way up popsicles. A study by Microsoft Research in Cambridge found that only 9 percent of parents believed their kids’ personal information was being used by advertisers to target them. Steyer wants the other 91 percent to wake up.
“I’m a professor at Stanford,” he says, “so these are my students who start these companies, and they view human beings as data to be aggregated. I think it’s extremely important that we understand that kids are not data points — they are human beings who need to be carefully raised and protected.” To that end, Steyer is working with Congressmen Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, of Texas, who’ve sponsored legislation now working its way through Congress called Do Not Track Kids. If passed, the law would provide more-stringent measures than COPPA does to protect kids online.
If you want a reason why Steyer, Markey, and others are worried about children’s privacy, try this: Google your kid’s name. Or recall how easy it was for someone to set up a fake Facebook account in that young girl’s name.
Then again, Facebook may be the least of my worries by the time my nine-year-old is a full-fledged tween. The more I learn about kids and social media, the more I realize we parents will never really be up to speed. That’s because, with the rate of technological change now at an unprecedented gallop, the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Just consider the staggering rise of texting. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of teenagers text. In 2011 they sent an average of 60 messages per day, up from 50 per day in 2009. And texting can apparently change the very nature of communication.