My 8-year-old son has used Facebook just once. "Call me, Uncle Marc," he wrote to my brother from my husband's account. When he didn't get an instantaneous response--Uncle Marc was at an Allman Brothers concert--he was not terribly impressed by the site that has nearly 700 million people under its spell.
So I am not among the many parents who freaked out when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his desire to upend the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act, which requires websites that collect user information to get parental permission via credit-card verification, for example, for anyone under the age of 13. "That will be a fight we take on at some point. My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age," said the baby-faced Facebook founder. (The site avoids the hassle of parental consent by setting an age minimum of 13.)
The backlash was swift. "He opened up a Pandora's box," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, the lead author of an American Academy of Pediatrics report that cautions that social-media sites, with their potential for run-ins with cyberbullying, sexting and inappropriate content (not to mention sleep deprivation), may not be "healthy environments" for children and teens. Zuckerberg quickly backpedaled, but his comments sparked another debate: Just how bad is Facebook for kids, anyway?
Developmentally speaking, it's not a good idea, says O'Keeffe. Since logic and sophisticated reasoning don't kick in until high school, younger children may not realize when one of their posts is inappropriate. Yet it's that social tentativeness that makes Facebook so attractive to kids: creating a virtual social network lets them avoid the hard work of building live-action ones. In interviews with more than 300 children, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, found that kids are nervous about ending conversations and prefer to apologize via text so they don't have to do it in person. "Facebook is a place where you let adolescents go when they're ready to be unsupervised," says Turkle. "It's like getting the keys to the cars."
But tons of tweens aren't willing to wait. There are now more than 7.5 million Facebook users younger than 13, according to a newly released Consumer Reports survey, and more than 5 million are 10 or younger. The age restriction is easy to circumvent: all it takes is entering a fake birth year when you open your account, although Facebook says it routinely kicks off underage members.
Tony Bradley, a Houston father of seven, five of whom are on Facebook, believes that Zuckerberg's brainchild is safer than lots of other cyberspace hangouts. "Facebook is certainly no worse than the rest of the Internet. It's actually better," says Bradley, who may be particularly embracing of social media for the little Bradleys because he blogs about technology for PCWorld. He recently registered his 11-year-old, and he's considering signing up his 9-year-old, reasoning it's the perfect way to keep in touch with far-flung relatives and friends. To stay in the know, Bradley would link his child's Facebook account to his own e-mail address. And forget visions of a dangerously expansive online kiddie social life. Says Bradley: "He'd have a grand total of 10 friends."