I have to confess that last year I let my 12-year-old son join Facebook, a few months before his 13th birthday. I figured what’s the harm, as he entered a fake birth date and instantly gained access to an account.Despite the fact that a federal law bars anyone under 13 from opening a social media account unless they get verifiable parental consent, as many as 7.5 million Facebook users are under that legal age, according to a May survey conducted by Consumer Reports.
And another recent survey suggests the number of parents who allow their 10- to 12-year-olds on social media sites has doubled in the past year. But only one in five parents say they’d let their kids use these sites unmonitored.I’ve friended both my son, who’s now 13, and my 15-year-old daughter. And, yes, I do frequently monitor their activity. Still, I now think I should have barred my son from signing up underage after speaking with Dr. Michael Rich, an adolescent medicine physician who heads the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston.”The issue I have isn’t about the age itself — there’s nothing magical about 13 in terms of children’s cognitive abilities — but about the law in place,” Rich says. “You’re teaching a kid to lie and scam the system, which isn’t a good example to be setting.”That’s a pretty convincing point.While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated in a recent interview with Fortune magazine that kids under 13 should be allowed on Facebook for its online media educational benefits, that would require changing the law or working out a way for parents, like myself, to prove that we’ve given permission.Unless that comes to fruition, I’m not going to allow my youngest child to sign up until he turns 13. (Happily for me, he’s not asking since none of his friends are on it.)However, the larger issue for parents is not so much the age at which their kids enter social networking sites but how they handle themselves once they’re online. Rich suggests parents set the following rules.–Log on only in public areas of the house.Kids should sit in the kitchen or den — rather than locked in their bedrooms — when chatting online with friends, so a parent can supervise.–Be your child’s networking adviser rather than policeman.Kids should be encouraged to reach out for help if they’re in trouble for, say, inadvertently being pulled into a bullying session in a chat room. But they should also be made aware of the rules ahead of time and the consequences. “Work out with your kid in advance under what circumstances they’ll lose their Facebook account,” Rich says.–Be cognizant of the teen brain.”Adolescents’ brain development often doesn’t enable them to project too far into the future,” Rich says. That means they might not have the forethought to predict that the photo they post of themselves holding a beer can might get them into trouble later with the high school principal. Teens also tend to make their pages aspirational, says Rich — who they want to be, rather than who they actually are. “A shy girl might post a sexy bikini picture without realizing that she might get unwanted hassling from her friends.”–Make sure your child understands the site and how it works.Do they know they’re going to be targeted by advertisers with ads geared to them and their personal interests? Do they understand that certain parts of their profile are public for all to see — including prospective employers — like their profile picture and their friends’ list? “Parents need to sit down with their kids to see how well they understand the tool,” says Rich.–Set some time limits.Facebook shouldn’t be interfering with homework, going outdoors to play, or hanging out with friends face to face, instead of in cyberspace.