My daughter has a Facebook account. She’s 4 years old. (If you are Facebook, *Jedi Mind trick* this is not the ToS violation you’re looking for…)
You might wonder, “But, why?! Why does a 4 year old need a Facebook account?” She doesn’t. No one needs Facebook, though seemingly more and more our lives revolve around updating and uploading every minutiae of our lives. Could you imagine what people would think if we didn’t tweet our lunch menu?
The fact is, however, that Facebook is here. Facebook, Twitter, or something like it will always be part of… well, life. So will the internet for that matter. A 2011 Pew Internet and American Life study found that 95% of teens 12-17 are internet users. When I was 17, that number was about 70%. I couldn’t find any numbers for teen use for the internet when I was 12 (about 1995), but adult usage of the internet was only 14% of the population and the world wide web as we know it didn’t even exist when I was 4.
It’s also not just computers that kids are using; about 75% of teens 12-17 own a cell phone. That’s still not accounting for the number of other devices that connect kids with the internet: gaming consoles (Playstation, Xbox), handheld game consoles, mp3 players, tablets, e-readers, televisions. Our “online lives” are no longer limited to the hour or two (or three or four) spent in front of our desktop computers at home; now you carry your “online world” with you everywhere you go, 24/7.
I’d like to imagine that had I gotten a manual with my child when she was born, it would come with automatic updates to keep me apprised of all the new-fangled things kids have to deal with. As I get older, it’s more and more difficult to tell what’s cool (do they even say “cool” anymore?). It seems clear to me, though, that being online will be an integral part of my daughter’s life, whether I like it or not. So, she has a Facebook account. I help her type messages to her “Pawpaw,” who lives a few hours away. She shares pictures with her grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most importantly, we talk. We talk about people she adds as friends. We discuss how pictures she uploads, even though she only shares them with her family, can be shared by others and could possibly be seen by anyone. She may not grasp the full implications of these discussions, but I like to think that I’m planting a seed. Hopefully years down the road, she will remember these little talks about the ramifications of the things she shares in her online world.
Counter to my point-of-view are those who would prefer to block children’s online access (Perils of Online Parenting in the Digital Age). As a parent I can definitely understand the need to protect your child, this sort of ache that spurs you into action when you think of a child in danger. Ultimately, I think that maintaining an open dialogue with children about their internet use, teaching them about the internet and how it works, is much more safe for them in the long run. There is absolutely nothing stopping my daughter from making her own Facebook account when she’s under 13 and posting personal information, pictures, or adding strangers as friends. By becoming involved in her online life, I can at least teach her. She will at least have some inkling of what safe computing is. And when the time comes, hopefully I’ve given her enough knowledge to make an informed decisions; she will make her own choices. But for now she’ll let me hold her hand (in so many ways), and I’ll try to prepare her for whatever I can.
Here are some tips on helping your child learn about the internet:
Learn everything you can about the internet. Being familiar with the internet will not only help you understand the risks; it will also help you talk to your kids.
Set standards for what your kids can and cannot do online. It’s important to make rules for your kids so they know what’s expected of them. Don’t wait until something bad happens to start creating guidelines.
Teach your kids to keep personal information private. It’s usually a bad idea to post personal information online such as phone numbers, addresses, or credit cards. If a criminal gains access to this information, they can use it to harm you or your family.
Teach your kids to use social networking sites safely. Sites like Facebook allow kids (and adults) to share photos and videos of themselves, have conversations with friends and strangers, and more. If your kids share something with their friends, it’s still possible for it to get into the wrong hands. Generally, they should only post something online if they’re comfortable with everyone in the world seeing it.
Encourage your kids to come to you if they encounter a problem. If your child gets into trouble online, you’ll want them to come to you instead of hiding it. Keep in mind that your kids could accidentally encounter a bad site, even if they’re doing everything right.
Talk to your kids about internet use. Talk to your kids regularly about how they use the internet. If they’re in the habit of talking to you about the internet, they’ll be more willing to come to you if there is a problem.
For more information:
Webonauts Internet Academy – a PBS kids web game that helps teach kids basic web concepts (recommended for 8-10 year olds)
Basic Internet Safety for Kids– a free online course for parents
And an informative video about teaching children and how to handle a bad situation if one arises: