Facebook, the social network that was created as a collegiate exclusive site, has become widely used by teens and preteens. The site requires users to be 13 years of age or older, but the policy is difficult to uphold and enforce. Research by Consumer Reports Magazine shows that as of 2011, 7.5 million U.S. users were under the age of 13. Slightly more than 5 million of those were under the age of 10. The stats raise the questions, should preteens be using Facebook?
The answers to that question will be different for every parent. I’m not trying to answer that question for parents, but my fear is that we are not giving it as much thought, as it deserves. Open communication is always the key to dealing with these issues. Here are some thoughts that we can encourage parents to consider…some good and some bad:
1. Rules are Rules
The Facebook user agreement states “You will not use Facebook if you are under the age of 13.” If preteens are allowed to register a profile on the site, then a message is sent that says breaking the rules is ok when it’s something you really want. While this may seem innocent, it does make future conversations about “required ages” difficult. If it is ok to lie about age at 13, then why wouldn’t it be ok at 16, 18, or 21?
2. Controlled Environment
Many parents will allow their preteen to create a Facebook profile because the site is a semi-controllable environment. They can limit the visibility of their child’s profile, as well as reject unknown friend requests. This feature is a better option than allowing children to freely surf the Internet unsupervised. There are still risks involved, but if properly managed, Facebook may be a safe alternative to other Internet usage.
3. Increased Risk
Preteens on Facebook are at an increased risk for harmful behaviors. First, there is a risk of privacy when a profile is created. Their pictures, daily schedules, school locations, and friends are posted and seen by others. To avoid this risk, it is important for profiles to be set to visibility by friends only. Even with the additional security, digital relationships show signs of increased aggressiveness, such as bullying, harassment, and stalking. The research by Consumer Reports found that 1 million children were subjected to harassment, threats, and other forms of cyber-bullying in the past year. Preteens may find it difficult to deal with these types of behaviors, especially if they are cannot talk to parents about the issues because they are on Facebook without permission.
4. Increased influence
While most of the stats show an increase of negative influence on preteens through Facebook, the opposite might also be plausible. Many ministries are finding ways to use social networking to better connect with their congregation, student ministries included. The 1 to 2 hours per week of influence that the church once had can be expanded to a much greater impact through social networking. It can promote relationships with other believers, connect students to Scripture on a daily basis, and give students a platform to talk about life issues with ministry leaders or peers. We have found that this is especially helpful when students attend church together but do not attend the same schools. It is a way for those students on different campuses to connect with their church friends throughout the week. The key for parents is to check on their preteen’s use of Facebook to make sure that the influences and interactions are positive for the child. Sadly, according to Consumer Reports, only 18% made their child a Facebook friend or checked their Facebook use regularly.
Should a preteen be on Facebook? This is a tough question. We know that they’re asking, and parents are under a lot of pressure to respond. They need help processing the decision and they need tools to help with the communication with their child. As a preteen leader, I don’t see it as my job to make the decision for the parents. My role is to equip them and partner with them in making the best out of whatever decision they make.
How are you equipping parents to make the touch decisions?
How do you help parents feel prepared to make the decision about Facebook or other social networks?