This is a common question I receive from many parents: “At what age should I give my child a cell phone or allow them to be on Facebook?” Of course this is not an easy question to answer since every child is different and parents themselves are probably in the best position to determine the most appropriate age. That said, I usually advise parents to think about allowing access to certain devices or web environments a little bit earlier than they might think is the right time. The issue really is that parents need to be the ones who introduce the technology to the child, not the youth’s peers. If parents wait too long or try to convince themselves that their child has no interest in Facebook, then odds are good that the child will learn about the site from a friend and set up a profile without the parent’s knowledge.
And some data suggests that they are right: Consumer Reports recently reported that as many as 13% of Facebook’s American users are under the age of 13 (about 7.5 million kids). And half or more of the students I speak to Facebook hasn’t completely ignored their rules, however, as they reportedly remove tens of thousands of under-aged youth every day. Of course if a user lies about his or her age when setting up the profile, it is very difficult for Facebook to know whether someone is underage so they rely on reports of violators.
This leads to another question I get: “If I see a person on Facebook who I know to be under 13, should I report the user?” This too is a complicated question. My response used to automatically be “yes.” If they are violating the rules, they should not be on the site. I have tempered my response a bit in recent months, informed by insights from colleagues, educators, and Internet safety experts. In general, whether or not to report an under-aged user depends on whether you have a concern about them being on the site—based on what you know about the user and/or what you see on his or her profile. If you are worried that their activities on Facebook could lead to significant social, educational, physical, or other problems, then you have an obligation to report (to the site or the youth’s parents, or both). If you see a 12-year-old whom you know well who is on the site and they have their privacy settings adjusted so that all of their information is protected to the maximum extent possible, perhaps it isn’t necessary to report the user. You still might want to take the person aside and talk about some of the concerns you have (posting too much personal or identifiable information, meeting someone in real life who they only know online, including gossiping or harassing content, etc.) to encourage him or her to continue making good decisions about their online activities. As Larry Magid, tech journalist and internet safety advocate points out, changing the rules to allow younger users on Facebook would create opportunities for the site to incorporate protections that just aren’t in place when kids lie about their age. This is certainly a perspective that should be considered.
Overall, parents should provide gradual and guided access to technology. Maybe, for example, you give your son a cell phone at age 10, but to start the only persons he can call are mom and dad. After a couple of months if he demonstrates appropriate behaviors you can add selected others. Then add texting. Show him the cell phone bill every month so he knows his contribution to the family expenses. Stress that the phone is a privilege that can be taken away with misuse. If he makes a mistake, take a step back. If he is texting at the dinner table, explain to him why this is unacceptable. If he is talking to friends all hours of the night, confiscate the phone for a while. I suspect that if more parents were actively involved in encouraging the responsible use of technology, even at a relatively young age, there would be fewer and less serious problems later in their adolescent lives.