BEIRUT: Facebook’s announcement earlier this month that it would consider allowing children under 13 to access the site has been met with little reaction from parents.
In fact, many young kids already have accounts, and some parents and educators say it can be a good thing with the right supervision. Hana Ghannoum was with her son two years ago when he opened a Facebook account at the age of 10.
“I was against him lying about his age. But he had two older sisters on Facebook, and he wanted to be a part of the whole thing,” Ghannoum says, noting that her son added her as a “friend” on the site, which allows her to see his activity.
So far, Ghannoum, a psychology instructor at the American University of Beirut, says Facebook has been a good experience for her children, who use the site to share photos of their vacations and stay in touch with friends.
In fact, as the family prepares to relocate to Germany, her children have already made friends with their new classmates through the world’s largest social networking site, which she believes is a good way for them to ease the transition to a new country.
But she understands the concern many parents might have over increased access for younger users, who might not be mature enough to handle certain content, language and interactions online. Several months ago, her children’s school sent a note to parents, asking them to speak to their kids about online bullying, which had become a problem among some students.
While some have criticized the company for considering the inclusion of young children, many acknowledge that the move would change very little and would only formalize an already existing situation. It is common for parents to set up accounts for their kids, and some have even created accounts for their babies as soon as they were born.
The social networking site currently bans children under 13, in line with U.S. regulations which require parental consent for data collection of children. This applies to all the countries throughout the world where it operates. But the company itself admits that the rule is difficult to enforce, particularly with so many children wanting to use the site.
According to a study in November by the Internet journal First Monday, 19, 32, 55 and 69 percent of children (ages 10, 11, 12 and 13 respectively) in the families they surveyed in the United States have Facebook accounts.
The same study found that 95, 88, 82 and 82 percent of children at those ages who joined the social network did so with the awareness of their parents, while 78, 68, 76 and 60 percent of them did it with the help of their parents.
Still, in a move that it hopes will expand its user base while being acceptable to parents, Facebook says it is working on prototypes that will allow preteens to use the site under parental supervision. This would include allowing parents to decide who their children can or can’t “friend” and what applications they use. The new features might also allow Facebook to charge parents for the games their children play.
While this new move might not change much in practice, it is causing parents and social media experts to evaluate the need for better privacy settings, parental supervision and communication with the much younger generation that’s now socializing online.
“Parents need to play a more active role in terms of awareness,” says Ayman Itani, media professor at the Lebanese American University. “It’s the same online: stranger danger, being careful about what they share.”
However, at an age when kids are not only vulnerable to strangers, but also have not developed time management skills, Itani stresses that it is important for parents to help get their children into the habit of limiting their time online, especially on a site as engaging as Facebook.
“A conscious effort needs to be made for a more balanced lifestyle,” Itani says. “I’m seeing more families making efforts – like saying no phones at the table.”
John Hess, who works at an NGO in Beirut and is the father of four children including two teenage boys, is against the idea of Facebook lowering its user age, which he believes is already too young.
Because of the company’s lack of enforceable regulations, he says he has a strict schedule for when his kids can go online, an agreement to share their passwords with him until they are 16, and he monitors their activity on a weekly basis.
“We have had to correct some bad language and communicating the wrong emotions to girls,” he says. “What’s interesting about Facebook and other social networking sites is the amount of raw emotion that seems to come out in text. Closing messages with ‘I love you’ and ‘do you love me back’ are exploratory feelings, but also ones that need direction.
“This is where we as parents can address the positive side of these emotions, but also point out how these statements can send someone down a path that they are not mature enough for.”
Even with parental supervision, he wonders if some from the older generations are able to understand the nuances of their children’s online language, such as “hooking up” and “WTF” – which, in his opinion, is all the more reason for parents to have open communication with their children in their daily lives rather than just close supervision online.
“With so many fathers traveling and working outside of Lebanon, I notice that Facebook attempts to fill this need for familial intimacy,” he says. “This is why youth find it so attractive and secretive. They have their own private world where humor and senseless things can be expressed, but also a void can be met [through] a surrogate family.”
As a parent, he sees the site as a double-edged sword, with the need to regulate his children’s use as well as an opportunity for them to learn about the world, noting that following current events and relating to friends have overtaken their interest in gaming as an online activity.
He says, “I have noticed just in my children an awareness of the Arab Spring, the financial crisis in Greece, and the issues that their peer groups are facing in other parts of the world. It is almost like a global solidarity movement for youth.
“Overall, I think that Facebook is a positive thing for youth ... I like that kids have an avenue for expressing themselves. Of course their immaturity will show up, but that is to be expected.”