By Monica Wilcox
Consumer Reports just came out with some startling evidence about age limits and social media: of the 20 million minors on Facebook, more than 1/3 (7.5 million) are younger than age 13, the age limit set up by the site. Five million are 10 and under. The shocking news was that the parents of this younger group are largely unconcerned. Only 18 percent of parents in this group are “friends” with their child, and only 10 percent said they have had a frank discussion about proper Internet behavior.
Facebook responded by saying, “We appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online.”
Alright, let’s take this opportunity. Join me for a chat.
We Create, But We Don’t Monitor
The problem with most parents today is we don’t get it. How could we? We were the creators. We were the ones ogling over the power of Atari, totting our Merlin, testing our abilities in Dos. And the miracles kept coming: speed-dial, caller-id, VCR, CDs, and DVDs. When we were 10 years old, “computer geek” was an insult, not an identity. We are damn good at creating technology miracles in someone’s garage. If only we’d been as gifted knowing how to live appropriately with all this technology.
Our generation has done an abysmal job applying the power of the Internet for our society’s highest good. We’re electronically transferring images Hustler would never publish, making indecent proposals to absolute strangers, bashing and bullying and hating faster than the speed of light — all without the consequences of seeing the impact first hand. I could feasibly cause someone — anyone — great emotional harm at this very moment on my Facebook page and would probably GAIN “friends” for doing so.
And yet, here we are, parenting our kids through a technological world. Just last night I asked my husband what the weather was supposed to be this week. He looked at the iPad, laptop, iPhone, NOOK Color and computer surrounding us and said, “Take your pick.” Technology is going to entrench itself into our children’s lives in ways we can’t imagine. Keeping technology from them would be a huge an injustice to their future.
A Reality Intervention
What do you imagine today’s sixth grader is texting? Do you think it’s even close to the stuff you were doing back in the ’80s? Something cuddly and meaningless:
Reality: here’s the text my girlfriend’s sixth grade son got last week from an eighth grade girl:
Seen you around. Meet me for a hard BJ?
And here’s the “chat” line my 9-year-old nephew got while on Facebook:
Next baseball game…do us a favor….take that bat to your head and don’t stop until YR pulp.
And get this: our middle school has strict rules against cell phone use during school hours. Why? Because the number one issue they’re battling is not drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex or bullying. No, it’s (cue the drum roll) TEXTING DRAMA. To quote the principal, “If there is any one thing I can advise you to do to prepare your child for success in sixth grade, it would be to abolish texting.”
The reality is that we were not prepared as a society to define HOW all this communication will be appropriately used. The reality is that we’ve got major, harmful issues waiting to link from cyberspace into our homes, like the one million children who were cyber-bullied last year on Facebook alone. The reality is that we’re handing 6-year-olds a direct link into the chaos. And the reality is that it’s past time for a “chat.”
We Need Guidelines
Here’s a start:
- Get Involved — We can no longer have parents riding the naive wave. Whatever technology your child is using, you need to be familiar enough with it to be able to protect and guide them. It’s part of your role as a parent.
- Create a Firm Age Limit — Why did Facebook set their age limit at 13? Wouldn’t it benefit them if every child on the planet had a page? I’d guess they’ve done their research, consulted their professionals, and the lawyers. They didn’t throw a dart and come up with 13. And from the social technology battles I see going on in nearly every family I know, I’d say age 13 should be a minimum for all social media — yes, even texting. When Henry Ford made it possible for everyone to have a car, we quickly learned the value of having a driving age limit. Just because we have a new technology DOESN’T entitle our child to it. Is your child truly prepared to handle sexting, bullying, group bashing, any more than drugs, alcohol, driving or guns? If so, what is the great need to expose them to it? What are they gaining? Convenience? Popularity?
- Your Child Will Not Be “Technologically Behind” – Don’t Fall For That Argument! -- I agree that the coming generations have to become familiar and comfortable with technology but they should be exposed to it at appropriate times and with sensitivity. Texting, Facebook, email: all of these things take very little “knowledge” to learn and use. My daughter is not going to be “behind” if we wait four more years to give her texting. In fact, she’ll probably end up “ahead” if she spends that time learning to communicate in person, a huge concern industry already has with its future work force. She’s already learning how to use educational sites and the numerous iPad applications (no, not Angry Birds) to improve and aid her in her goals. I’m sure she’ll be as capable as her grandmother was when the time comes to set up her own Facebook page.
- Use Technology for Your Highest Good — All of us, not only our children, should only add technology to our lives if it’s a positive addition. Is it really worth having that electronic tablet if it’s bringing stress, eating up your productive time, or drawing negative energy into your life? Choose only those gadgets and outlets that are for the user’s highest good.
- Don’t Send What You Wouldn’t Say — Everyone who communicates electronically should understand the power of having “a censor panel.” If your kid is unwilling to share every communication they send out with you, their principal, and The Almighty Himself, that’s a sign it should NOT BE SENT. We’ve got to break this horrible habit of electronically saying things we would never speak.
So share with us: do you have a problem with parents whose kids are “chatting” it up on Facebook with no supervision? Is it a parent’s responsibility to monitor and instill appropriate behavior? Is it the government’s responsibility? Both? Have you had a horrible experience with your child on Facebook, texting, or emailing? What guidelines would you like to set?
* * * *