How Young Is Too Young for Facebook?

Last Updated Apr 4, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

In the last week of March, Facebook revealed it kicks off some 20,000 underage users per day. Who's underage? Anyone younger than 13. While that may be some comfort to parents who don't want their tweens using Facebook, it's hard to see how the site could keep up with kids who want to be on it badly enough. Just last week, my niece told me she knows a child in her second-grade class who has a profile.

Many parents think 13 is still too young, because of all the ways teens use it to make each other feel left out. One mom emailed me to say, "Kids get upset when they see pictures of their friends doing things that they were not included in. And most folks agree that much of it is not even real." Her daughter, she says, believes she is better off without it. Another mom is holding firm with her 14-year-old. "Bullying goes on, inappropriate pictures are posted," she told me. "I don't think anything good can come out of it."

A few months ago I attended a volunteer training session for my daughter's school. And one of the dads told of forbidding his 16-year-old to use Facebook. Of course, she went to a friend's house and signed on anyway. The parents' next move? They created a false profile, friended their daughter -- and for a month tracked the inappropriate things she was posting. Then they confronted her. Ouch.

Those, of course, are the negatives. On the bright side is Amori Yee Mikami, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia. "Just like any social interaction, there are positive ways of using Facebook and negative ways of using it," she says. "Most teenagers are using Facebook to keep in touch with people whom they already know, to interact with their existing friends. For well-adjusted teenagers who have good, supportive friendships with well-adjusted peers, the research suggests they're tending to use Facebook to keep in touch with and joke around with the people they already know from their regular life. It can enrich those relationships."

Then there are teens who are at risk of using it to spill personal information, connect with strangers, or mercilessly bully and gossip about their peers. "What is with the teenage brain?" I ask her.

"It's normal for them to want more freedom and want to engage with their peers," Mikami responds. "That's what being a teenager is about and that's what normal teenagers do. What's hard, of course, is that they don't have as much maturity as they think they have. It's important for parents to think about ways of honoring their teens' desires for autonomy. At the same time, remember, they are still the parents and this is still a teenager -- not an adult. Even if the kids say they don't want guidance and don't want their parents to be involved, parents have to find a way to be in involved." Which, of course, is easier said than done. Here's her advice:

Start the conversation early: You might think your tween isn't mature enough yet for Facebook, but don't avoid the topic. Ask: "Do you have friends who are using Facebook? Why do they use it? Are you interested in using it? What are some of the rules that your friends' parents have had? What do you think are some of the good parts about it? What are some of the bad parts?" This opens the conversation.

Let them know you're looking out for their best interests: You're trying to be helpful, protect them, and guide them. Express that, instead of saying "no" with no reason or just trying to stop all the fun. "Again, start those conversations early, before the teen is already dead set on having the page and the parent is dead set against it," Mikami says.

Find a way to monitor what's happening: You need a way to stay in good communication about it. If your teen will let you friend him, that's one way of knowing what's going on. If the teenager has to show you her page periodically, that's another. Spying via a fake profile? It might work short term, but it won't build much trust for the future.

Explain the risks: Explain what can happen if they friend strangers, or if they reveal too much personal information. Their college or job prospects might be compromised by inappropriate photos, but also the family's finances or basic safety can be harmed by TMI. My colleague Kathy Kristoff's story, 6 Things You Should Never Reveal on Facebook, should be required reading for teens and parents.

It's not just other teens who are problematic: If your brother-in-law's Facebook political rants tend to be disturbing, explain that when you say why you don't want your child to friend his uncle. Admit it: There are plenty of adults who use Facebook inappropriately too. Your teen might appreciate hearing you concede that.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nikke Lindqvist, CC 2.0
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