Facebook becomes more ubiquitous each year -- in July of 2010, the site reportedly surpassed the 500 million active users mark. Young people make up a sizeable portion of that usership. But with the psychologically scarring threat of cyberbullying growing increasingly common, and the peril of online predation prominent in worried parents' thoughts, it might seem better to keep kids sheltered from prying eyes and cruel classmates.
According to Facebook's statement of rights and responsibilities, kids have to be at least 13 years old to create an account, although it's not hard for children younger than 13 to create one anyway, and many do. Therefore, it's important to keep tabs on what your children are doing online and make sure they're consistently behaving smartly and safely -- even if they haven't hit the magic 13 threshold yet. Chances are decent that, if left to their own devices, they'll have an account long before then.
Just as you'd assess your children's maturity level before determining whether they're old enough to be left home alone, part of the decision to allow kids on Facebook is focused around whether you trust them to conduct themselves online in ways that won't lead to trouble. You also need to examine whether you think they are psychologically prepared to handle any negative online interactions instigated by others. Also, how much do you agree with Facebook's decision that 13 is the earliest kids should participate on the site? Do you think yours can handle it at a younger age? Or do you think that 13 is a little too early for a Web-based profile?
It's a controversial topic with no cut-and-dry answer, but on the next page, we'll look at some more aspects to the issue that can help guide your family's decision process.
Deciding if it's the Right Time
Sit down with your kids and talk to them about what is appropriate and acceptable in terms of online behavior, as well as what isn't. Then see how well they absorb the information. Educate them so they can be prepared for different eventualities, like if strangers send them unsolicited friend requests, or if peers ridicule them about their status updates. Explain to them that they shouldn't use Facebook to harass classmates they dislike or upload incriminating photos featuring themselves or others.
Help them set their privacy settings and make sure they know to never give out personal information online. Go into detail about all the info that includes, and see how receptive they are to those limitations. For example, uploaded photographs should be examined closely for any particulars that could lead an online predator or cyberbully to your home. More wisely, they should be left off altogether. Are your kids concerned about self-censoring themselves in these sorts of ways? The virtual world is often just as perilous as the real world, so make sure both you and your kids thoroughly understand -- and respect -- the dangers.
If you decide your family is ready to participate on Facebook, negotiate how you will continually follow your kids' online activity to ensure they're safe. They can share their passwords with you, for example, or you can perform random reviews. It's also smart to check their use of electronic devices through monitoring software, customer support and accounts of your own.
If you think they should wait until they're a little older, but they protest about not being able to have an account, there are some alternative online social networks they can enjoy that are more kid friendly (and more closely monitored by responsible adults) such as Kidzworld, Togetherville and Club Penguin. Find one that's a good fit and stay current when it comes to what your kids are doing online.
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- Smith, Catharine. "Principal Asks Parents To Ban Facebook, Social Networking." Huffington Post. June 30, 2010. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/30/principal-asks-parents-to_n_558225.html
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