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When Should We Introduce Social Media to Kids?

When my son was in third grade, he attended a Waldorf school where modern technology and media – TVs, computers, mobile phones, video games, and so on – are severely restricted. My wife and I embraced that idea while simultaneously feeing a little uncomfortable about it.

On the one hand, kids need to be kids and there should be no rush to have them grow up and be exposed to more-adult things. I also came away from my time at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology in Education program with the firm belief that computers in education make more sense at older ages than at younger ages. Kids need the hands-on, get-your-fingers-dirty aspects of childhood. All the constructivist (and constructionist) theories and tools can’t hold a candle to actual mucking about with objects in the real world.

On the other hand, adults use technology constantly, from the iPhone and iPad to the Mac, and we spend time on Twitter and Facebook, among many other online services. So it has become harder to stick to this viewpoint over the years, not because of improvements to educational technology, but rather because of the continuing insinuation of advanced technology into everyday life and the rapid growth of social media. And that raises the question of when a child is old enough to be allowed to use the same technological products and services that we adults do.

My son, now 10 years old, wants a Facebook account. He wants the restrictions to chat removed on his FreeRealms account. He’s starting to be bothered by the limits in interactions in Webkinz, and he wants to video chat with his friends on Skype. Also, he wants to make digital things. He wants to write games to share with his friends on the Web, he wants to become a YouTube star (so far, I’m helping him do movie reviews) and he wants to write, film, edit, and score a movie (I signed him up for a mini-camp at the local Apple Store to get him started).

I’m beginning to adjust my thinking about what technology he should be allowed to use. The content creation and publishing tools don’t bother me much – they have only recently become usable by kids. But the social media question is harder. His generation will be far more connected than mine is. Why should we hold off on introducing him to that world? It will play such a significant role in his life that it seems to me his education should begin sooner. If he is to be truly successful in the world when he comes of age, he should be armed to the teeth with knowledge and skills.

Of course, the big issue is his age. He and his peers are too young to navigate the eddies and swirls of the social media stream. You read about the horror stories of young people getting online and not being able to deal with the bullying and pressures that exist out there. Alarmist pieces like “Facebook pressure: The horrifying week I spent spying on my 11-year-old daughter” scare parents into clamping down on social media use when, in fact, the author of that very article actually happens on the solution: parental supervision.

When our children go out into the real world at this age, they never do so alone. We parents accompany them. I go with my son when he needs to go to the store. I take him to his play dates. I take him to his scouting and karate events. Or he goes with my wife or another parent. Pre-teens are almost never left alone without adult supervision, to keep them safe and to ensure nothing bad happens. Kids at this age are not good at seeing consequences to their actions, and they do many ill-considered things.

So it’s our job as parents to protect our children and to keep things from getting out of hand. It is our voices that tell them not to get too close to the campfire or to stay off the rocks so no one falls. It is we who tell them to look both ways when crossing the street, to eat their vegetables, to turn off the TV and read a book, to go to bed now, to not treat their friend that way, and to answer the telephone politely. We tell them when to say please and thank you so they learn at least the form of manners, even if their understanding of why manners are important won’t come for years. We pay attention to their social interactions to help prevent them from becoming bullies or complete introverts. We guide them and teach them how to
work within our society.

Parents do all these things in the real world, but at the same time many tell their children that they cannot go online. They prohibit all things online because they are scared of the bullying and the predators out there. And they do this even though online predation is a vastly overblown worry and research has shown that bullying is still more an offline problem than an online one.

Parents also latch onto things like Facebook’s age limits, which restrict accounts to those who are at least 13 years old. It’s an easy crutch, so they either lean on it or end up inadvertently teaching their kids that lying about their age is OK to get them in early. (Ironically, the age restriction is not there to protect kids, but rather exists as the way these sites handle COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. See “How COPPA Fails Parents, Educators, Youth” for an explanation.)

But all of these knee-jerk reactions assume that we are going to hand over the computer and walk away.

Instead, we should start to walk our kids into this online world just as we walk them into the real world. Let them get online but supervise them. Allow them to start exploring and learning how the online world works but stay with them on the journey until they can go alone, the same way we already do this in the real world. (At the same time, we need to recognize how immersive and compelling this online world can be and set sensible limits. Children should still run outside and play with real toys, not spend all of their time online with virtual friends.)

If you see bullying in the real world, you inform the parent of the offending child and hope they will do something about it. If you see bullying online, you can do the same thing. And if the other parent fails to address the problem in the real world, you can usually escalate the complaint to an authority figure – a bus driver, teacher, or principal. That’s not possible online, but in the virtual world, you can block the bully from contacting your kid entirely, which isn’t possible in the real world. If your own child acts inappropriately, you are there to stop it and explain how social networks work, or at least how they should work. In short, you can teach your kids how to act in polite online society, just as you teach them to
navigate social situations in the real world.

Of course, the fallacy with this approach is that many of the parents in my generation have no clue about appropriate online behavior. Luckily, most of what’s necessary can be accomplished merely by sitting with your children as they explore online, so you are there to correct or guide. I wish there were an online course for parents to teach them what they need to know to do their jobs correctly in the new media space. And I also wish our schools would take up the challenge and find a way to add social networking tools to their curricula so that children learn to use them in a smart, effective, and ethical manner.

As regards my own family, I am not saying that I will let my son lie and get a Facebook account. I do still believe that we must consider age appropriateness. He is just learning how to use the phone to call his friends (we still have to remind him to be polite to adults, tell them who he is when he calls, and things like that), he can’t type that well yet, and, frankly, he’s only 10. There’s plenty of time. (That said, we’ve just learned of a new site called Togetherville that piggybacks on Facebook and provides some level of access with full parental supervision. We will be exploring it as a possible bridge to Facebook when he is older.)

But my reasons for holding him back from at least the social media side of things stem not from fear but rather from a belief that he is not sufficiently mature or socially adept yet. I believe he will reach that state long before he’s 13, but I’ll deal with that conundrum then. Meanwhile, he can create all the content he wants, start his own blog, and more. And as he does and when he’s ready for social networking, I’ll be there to guide him, just as I am out in the real world.

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