LIFE&STYLE Is it OK for a child under 13 to use Facebook?
As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg campaigns for pre-teens to have legal access to his social networking site, we ask if this would be helpful or harmful to today's children.
Kate Birch, mother of three children, aged 14, 12 and six.
A year ago, when my daughter was 11, I said ‘no' to her Facebook account requests. A year later, I'm reconsidering. Kids need to be 13 to register, though enforcing this is difficult as they simply lie about their age. Of the estimated 7.5 million kids on Facebook, 5 million are 11 or under. As with other ‘temptations' in life, I think it's down to parents to educate, monitor and police.
As an expat child, Facebook, like Skype, offers great benefits for my daughter, helping her stay in touch with friends and family around the world. I see other positives. It's a great way for kids to socialise, express themselves, and learn about the wider world. Dr Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, agrees: "Social networks encourage discovery and can help young people develop their interests and find others who share them.
"Much of childhood is spent developing identity, wrestling with issues of self-worth. Social networking is useful for children learning how to relate to the world."
I'm not suggesting you let them tap away for hours. Real social interaction is necessary, too. But Facebook can add an extra dimension, and just as we prepare our kids for being streetwise, so we should be teaching them a language that will undoubtedly be crucial to their future. "Introducing social media participation in those under 12 can significantly increase the probability of them acquiring this complicated skill set," says Dr Wyne.
Neither am I suggesting that a six-year-old have an account. I think that while age restrictions are a good guideline, you know when your own kids are ready. I sometimes let mine watch movies that are deemed too ‘old' as I know they can understand the issues raised.
By talking to my daughter, setting some simple rules and keeping an eye on her account (one rule of thumb is to be ‘friends' with your child on Facebook), I'm confident she'll get the positives out of social networking.
Parents who bang on about the ‘dangers of the internet' need a virtual reality check. The world can be a dangerous place, not just online. Yes, there's cyber-bullying and inappropriate language, but that's not limited to Facebook - it's a fact of life... and just as we teach them how to stay safe outside, so we teach them how to stay safe online.
Whether you love it or hate it, there's no denying that social networking is the future. Our Generation F kids will be using it every day, so the time to learn best practices is now. It's smarter to educate our kids than ignore it.
"We want our children to develop their own identity and become independent," says Dr Wyne. "Learn to trust them and allow opportunities for exploration. Social networking can broaden users' horizons by helping them discover how other people think in all parts of the world."
As an expat mum, that's what I want for my global kids.
Louisa Wilkins, mother of two, aged five and three.
My only reference point for knowing whether a 12-year-old is mature enough to withstand the very adult (although arguably not very grown up) arena of Facebook, is to look back at my own childhood. At age 12 I was riding my bike and playing on rope swings. Sure, I knew every song in the top 50 and could recite TV ads with Rain Man-style accuracy, but there seemed to be a greater divide between the cultural spheres of adults and kids than there is today. We were chucked outside to play, so the adults could socialise in peace. Now, it's likely to be the parents outdoors while their kids sit inside on Facebook.
In 2006, a group of education and medical experts in the UK joined forces to campaign for the protection of children against the ‘poison' of the modern world. Since then, they have written a book together called Too Much, Too Soon? (Hawthorn Press), in which they cite factors such as advertising, consumerism, screen-based lifestyle, educational pressure and not enough outdoor play as being responsible for causing the ‘erosion' and ‘adultification' of childhood.
One of the experts, Baroness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University professor of pharmacology, believes that social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, are particularly corrosive. She says, "What concerns me is the banality... Why should someone be interested in what someone else has had for breakfast? It reminds me of a small child... ‘Look at me Mummy, I'm doing this', ‘Look at me Mummy I'm doing that'. It's as if they're in some kind of identity crisis."
Baroness Greenfield says that Facebook is particularly harmful for self-image. She says, "It's a world where what counts is what people think of you. Think of the implications for society if people worry more about what other people think of them than what they think about themselves."
Another expert involved, Sue Palmer, is concerned that Facebook gives girls the impression that they are "a commodity" that needs to be sold, defining them by how much people admire their fabricated image.
Facebook has been linked to so many emotional and mental health issues (anxiety, self-esteem) that psychologists are calling it Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD).
This is worrying. Much more so than the risk of sinister adults, which just requires close monitoring; or the myth that abbreviations like "lol" will hinder spelling. Addicted to a world where your social success is based on how you look and how often your ‘friends' tell you they like you? As adults, we can choose how much of this we absorb, but is this Petri dish of needy, image-obsessed narcissism a healthy environment for a child while they develop their identity?
Don't get me wrong - there is a time and an age for Facebook. But given the choice between my pre-teens having an old-fashioned childhood, or a premature hit on the FAD pipe, I choose dirty knees all the way.
Next month's debate: Is it OK to have secrets in a marriage?
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