“There is nothing good that can happen on Facebook for a 10-year-old,” says Sam Wildt, a Worcester, Massachusetts, father of three. Wildt and his wife, Jill, have decided to nix the notion of a Facebook page for their 10-year-old eldest son, who insists that all his friends are on the social media site. “We’re trying to hold steady until 12,” Jill says. “Both Sam and I feel that was an age when we started to digest how things in the world work.”
Her reason: She is extremely cautious about any family information getting out into the public. “I was an intelligence specialist in the Marine Corps,” Jill says. “I’m paranoid as it is.”
Another reason for concern: Jill and Sam are very active on Facebook. Sam has almost 1,900 friends and lots of activity—much of it to support the family’s business, Palomar Printing. “Sam and I are Facebook nuts,” Jill says. “Our kids see how exciting it is for us. But right now, we’re trying to scale back so we can teach our kids that it’s not that important.”
Real Dangers Online?
So what is the right age to let your kids have their own Facebook page? The site’s age requirement is 13, and the company will rip down any page they learn is owned by someone younger. But ultimately, parents decide what happens in their homes, and the magic age at which a page is allowed is up for debate.
At the root of the debate are disagreements about the dangers of Facebook. On one hand, Kathryn Rose, author of The Parent’s Guide to Facebook: Tips and Strategies to Protect Your Children on the World’s Largest Social Network ($10.99 at Barnes & Noble), urges caution. “There are lots of pedophiles out there, and it doesn’t take them long to find kids,” says Rose, who is the mom of a 4-year-old and an infant. “Facebook is the world’s largest online playground. You wouldn’t let your kids loose on a real playground.”
Rose says that she herself—a married mom—frequently gets romantic Facebook solicitations. “You’re so beautiful. Let’s talk,” read a recent message from someone whose profile picture was that of a handsome middle-aged man. “Imagine what a 14-year-old girl would think if she received that,” Rose says.
And then there are the cyberbullying-related child suicides, such as the 2006 death of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hanged herself after being taunted on MySpace.
Or Are They Exaggerated?
On the other hand, Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) ($11.53 at Barnes & Noble), says that though she didn’t allow her two teenage sons to have Facebook pages until they
were 13, she thinks that it makes sense to lower the site’s age requirement. “The idea that the virtual world is crawling with people who want to have virtual sex with your child is as off as the idea that a child cannot walk to school because there is a pervert behind every bush,” says Skenazy. “Facebook is this generation’s communication tool just like the telephone was our generation’s tool. If this is the way they find a pickup basketball game or get homework help, why would we prohibit that?”
A few years ago, Skenazy wrote a Daily Beast article called “The Myth of Online Predators.” The feature dissects statistics from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, which found that “one in seven juveniles will be solicited online.” The majority of these solicitations are what researcher David Finkelhor calls the equivalent of “wolf whistles.” Skenazy writes:
As uncomfortable as these comments might make us feel as parents, they’re absolutely nothing new. Do your children leave the house occasionally? Then they’ve probably heard similar comments many times before. The reason this type of lechery gets so much attention when it happens online, Finkelhor believes, is that it serves as “revealing ink”—typed out, visible evidence of something that has always gone on, more or less unnoticed. “So, for example,” says Finkelhor, “when your daughter is walking to school with her friend, you don’t see every motorist who leers at them.” On the Internet, you do, because the leering appears as words on a screen. This makes the hoots and hollers seem more menacing. But are they evidence that online child predators are a big threat?
Regardless of the age at which you allow your kid to get a Facebook page, both Skenazy and Rose agree that rules of engagement apply. Here are a few guidelines for your kid:
• Have a talk with them. Lots of talks. Talk about sex and dating and bullying. Rules for the playground, school and friends’ homes apply online.
• In your house, you own the password.
• Teach them that everything they post online can be found by anyone—perhaps forever.
• Educate them about the legal and social consequences of cyberbullying.
• Create a written agreement about social media terms. This includes what content your child is allowed to post, time spent on the site each day or week, and the protocol in the event that strangers contact them. Rose’s book contains a sample agreement.
Thank you to RetailMeNot, The Insider, for this article