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Social Media

Just how young is too young?

March 25, 2012
by SHAUNNA DUNDER HERSHBERGER - Lifestyles Editor ( , Times Leader

"Does anyone know how to post videos to Facebook?"

We've all seen the hilarious commercial about network speeds for your smartphone that are so blazing fast that everything is "so 29 seconds ago." And that rings true about our world today. Whether you keep up with it or not, technology continues to grow quickly. It seems a person can't go anywhere without hearing, "Did you see that video on YouTube?" or "I just checked Facebook on my phone." Social media - especially Facebook - has now reached a point where it's nearly impossible to avoid during our day to day lives.

As far as connecting yourself to the rest of the world on Facebook, the process is fairly simple - fill out a short form with your name, birthday, email and a password and click! You're on your way. However, for many parents, the ease at which their children can sign up for a Facebook page is frightening.

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A June 2011 survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million — or more than one-third — were younger than 13. In addition, among these young users, more than 5 million were 10 and under.

Facebook, like other online sites, abide by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA). This act applies to online collection of personal information from children under 13 years of age and details what a privacy policy must contain, when and how to seek verifiable consent from a parent or guardian, and the responsibilities the site has to protect children's privacy and safety.

The minimum age to join Facebook is 13, which must be verified by inputting your birthdate. However, a June 2011 survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million - or more than one-third - were younger than 13. In addition, among these young users, more than 5 million were 10 and under, and their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents. In an article released by Fortune in 2011, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes this is OK - even though his site technically doesn't allow children under 13. Zuckerberg feels that Facebook can be used as an educational tool and goes on to say that "for education you need to start at a really, really young age," which, of course, means allowing kids under 13 to be on Facebook.

Facebook itself offers some helpful tips to parents about protecting their children online. Sending messages, posting updates and tagging pictures are all handled differently for minors, according to the site. However, even adults admittedly have trouble following Facebook's always changing privacy policies - policies that tend to shift without most users being aware of a change. Even the most technically savvy individual can succumb to privacy leaks due to hidden settings buried deep within the privacy settings menu.

What's more, Facebook's rather flimsy age screening process of entering a birthday can be easily bypassed by young kids - and the adults who help them - who simply lie about their age. reports that a survey conducted by education leaders and Microsoft Research revealed that more than half of parents knew their 12 year olds had a Facebook account and more than three-fourths either helped them create an account or knew when their children joined the site.

Amidst all the debate, everything seems to go back to one question. What is an appropriate age for children to be on Facebook?

In an informal poll conducted on this writer's own Facebook account, many parents admitted to either allowing their underage children to play games on their accounts or to letting their children have their own closely monitored page. Most agreed, however, that if their children were on Facebook, they were watched closely. One parent, whose daughter is over the minimum age, says that she keeps her daughter's password and regularly checks her wall posts.

Another parent, after much debate with her 12 year old son, allowed him to have his own page rather than post and send things through her account. She was hesitant to let him join at first because she knew "how cruel the kids are these days and the drama that starts on Facebook...and no parent wants that for their child." On the other hand, his account allowed him to stay in touch with distant family and friends. "During the year and a half my son begged," she stated, "I used those moments to teach him why I was saying 'No'." There were pros and cons to letting him have his own page, but ultimately, she allowed it because she felt he understood the responsibility of having a page and the good and the bad of Facebook. "As long as he has his own Facebook page, his mama will have his password and monitor his page daily," she said. She also keeps a close eye on questionable activity or language from any of his friends and de-friends them if necessary.

On the other hand, many parents seem leery of the dangers that lurk in the social media world. "You can't control what your child sees when you give them an account into what really is an adult website," said one parent. "There is no need to expose them to any additional risks that they aren't already exposed to in their day to day lives. What happened to just letting kids be kids, and doing 'kid' things? I understand the games thing, but let my son play on my account, when I can supervise him."

Others had serious concerns about privacy issues. "I don't think a child that age understands the online world and the ramifications of keeping things extremely private - not to mention Facebook constantly changing their privacy settings - so pictures being out there especially worry me," one parent noted. Another concerned parent stated that when children post pictures and videos on Facebook, a lot of people can see them and "there are a lot of sick people out there." Another respondent who works regularly with children said that it was OK for them to be on Facebook if they were supervised, but she stressed that it probably wasn't a good idea to let children have reign on Facebook or the Internet in general. "We all know this is where sexual predators like to hang out and search for these unsuspecting kids," she added.

But even supervised children can run into issues. Inadvertently clicking on ads can take a child to an unwanted web site and can open up the computer to viruses, malware and hackers. Kids can even accidentally spend your money online without you knowing. One respondent recalled when the child of an acquaintance was playing a game on his mother's Facebook account, clicked an ad that was linked to her PayPal account and inadvertently purchased $30 worth of coins for a game.

Giving away too much personal information seems to be the number one concern of parents who responded to the informal survey. Many of the parents question the ability of their children to fully understand the ramifications of posting embarrassing videos or photos that can some day come back and haunt them. In fact, the Associated Press has reported that some employers are asking potential employees for their Facebook user name and password during interviews. And simply deleting unwanted photos or videos does not solve the problem of "hiding" questionable or unwanted content. In a report done by Ars Technica, Facebook admitted the company's older systems that stores uploaded content, "did not always delete images from content delivery networks in a reasonable period of time even though they were immediately removed from the site." This means that even though an embarrassing photo may no longer be visible on your page, if someone saved the url to it, he or she can still see it.

Social media has changed the world - the way we communicate, the way we get our information, the way we live our daily lives. Children growing up in today's world are exposed to an overload of technology, more so than any previous generation, and it's no wonder they are intrigued by all the gadgets their parents use. For most parents, allowing their children access to any technology, whether it be a game on a smartphone or a Facebook account, is an on-going debate with no black or white answer. Evaluating the child's level of maturity and ability to take accountability for their actions seem to be key in whether or not parents allow them to have an online presence.

On the other hand, some parents seem to think social media is more trouble than it's worth. As one parent quipped, "I'm starting to think no one should have a Facebook account."



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