Are you ready for your second- or third-grader to sign up for Facebook? The company floated that idea this week, telling the Wall Street Journal that it is considering allowing kids under the age of 13 to use the site with parental supervision. This is a trial balloon, floated for the benefit of D.C. regulators and Congress as much as for parents. Facebook made the potential plan sound as benevolent as possible, saying it is testing linking kids’ accounts to their parents’ pages and adding controls that would allow parents to decide whom their kids can friend and what apps they can use.
Don’t be reassured. Facebook is interested in kids because it wants to encourage them to share widely, as early in their lives as possible, because that’s good for the company’s market share, now and in the future. The most telling line in the Journal article is this one: “Concerns have been growing over Facebook’s ability to sustain the 88% revenue growth it achieved last year via advertising, especially in the wake of its troubled initial public offering.” This is a company under pressure to increase profits—and one whose record with teenagers doesn’t demonstrate that it’s a good place for younger kids to grow up.
Let’s start with cyberbullying: In 2011, Consumer Reports estimated that of the 20 million young people who used Facebook in the previous year, 1 million of them were bullied, harassed, or threatened on the site. A Pew Center survey from the same year found that 15 percent of teens between 12 and 17 said they’d been harassed on a social network site in the last 12 months, and, because “Facebook dominates teen social media usage,” as Pew put it, it’s safe to say that a lot of the harassment happened there.
There’s even more cause for concern about younger kids in the Pew numbers: The center found that more than 30 percent of 12-to-13-year-old girls said they saw kids being mostly unkind to each other on social network sites, significantly more than the 20 percent of teens who reported such unkindness overall. The survey followed up with this interesting question: “Have you had a bad experience online that made you nervous about going to school the next day?” More than one in four 12- and 13-year-old girls said yes, a higher rate again than any other group. In other words, young kids, especially girls, are more vulnerable online than older kids are—they are different from teenagers in a way that makes social networking harder for them to navigate.
Then there’s the work of Stanford professor Clifford Nass. With a colleague, Nass surveyed about 3,500 girls ages 8 to 12 and found that the girls who used online media heavily had fewer good feelings about their friendships than other girls their age and had more friends whom their parents considered a bad influence. The single predictor in the study of healthy emotional interactions, the study found, was lots of face-to-face communication. I called Nass to ask him what he thought about Facebook’s idea of signing up kids in the young age group he has studied. He’s skeptical, and to explain why, he drew an analogy to child obesity. “Our research shows a link between face-to-face contact and good relationships because that’s the best way to learn to read other people’s emotions,” he said. “It’s how kids learn empathy, and they have to practice. So it’s like the in-person socializing is the healthy food, and Facebook is the empty calories. It’s like junk food, and the more of it kids have, the less time they may have for the healthy stuff.”