In theory, Facebook does not allow users under the age of 13 to have an account. Regardless of that policy, an estimated 5.5 million of Facebook’s users are younger than the requisite age. And while it might seem like it’s no big deal – all the kids are doing it, after all – what happens online can be a very big deal, especially when the tech is left unchecked.
Make no mistake, Facebook was not necessarily concerned with the good of the pre-pubescent psyche when implementing their age limit – there are stringent laws governing the marketing and advertising to children under the age of 12 – but more and more evidence shows that the rule is in fact, a sound one for many reasons.
Facebook overuse has been linked to an increase in narcissism, depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety amongst young people, and symptoms of these mental health conditions have been noted in younger and younger children over the past few years. And exposure to sexual, violent and other decontextualized and inappropriate images add a complicated layer to the already complex jungle of social cues tweens are trying to navigate.
In her new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, author Catherine Steiner-Adair suggests that exposure to widespread, unmonitored tech and social media is leaving kids disconnected from their family, and unable to process the messages they are exposed to – often much too early.
An argument could be made that the issues young people will – undoubtedly, absolutely – face online could provide important touchstones for family discussion and adult guidance, but even educators trained to help kids navigate the online world admit that their messages don’t always get through. Parents could and should know their kids’ passwords and be checking their social media accounts regularly. But even if a parent does catch something nefarious going on, the truth is, by then, it could already be too late. We hear sad reminders of this all too often. And even the most tech-savvy parent would find it hard to keep up with Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies.
Technology and social media is constantly evolving, and how we respond to it will have to evolve as well. It’s not always going to be as easy as limiting the amount of time or cross-section of websites that your kid can access, but sometimes it will be easier; sometimes you can simply tell them that they are not allowed to visit a certain website, or you’ll take away the iPod/cellphone that you are paying for. You can give it back when they turn 13.
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