It’s not uncommon for someone under 13 to have a Facebook account today despite the restriction implemented in the “Terms of Service (ToS)” of Facebook. In fact, even Mark Zuckerberg himself acknowledged that children under 13 should have a chance to use Facebook to interact with their friends. So the restriction on the ToS exists only in name, with little efficacy. Instead of talking about the appropriateness or usefulness of the ban, I want to look at this issue from another angle – do people at a young age (before 13, probably) really need Facebook/Twitter/social networking sites?
When I was 13, I had neither Facebook nor Twitter account. True, both of the sites had not been founded at that time. But even if they had, I doubt whether I would use them. I met most of my friends on a daily basis (either in school or in my neighborhood) and my social life was full of fun and excitement even without the online interactions. However, with the advancements in entertainment technology online, people from a young age start to develop the habit of socializing in a virtual platform instead of in a face-to-face method.
That trend is worrisome for two reasons: First, as children put more and more emphasis online, they lose the opportunity to socially interact in a real and face-to-face setting (some people argue that online interaction complements daily socialization and helps children build strong, intimate friendship. I do not disagree with that conclusion but need to point out that such strong relationship exists mainly online with only a small real life component; the capability to communicate with someone face-to-face could not be simply developed by Facebook chats and posts). The gradual loss of effective communication skills in real life (including the use of appropriate gestures, facial expressions, tones etc. which Facebook socialization hardly requires) could negatively influence the child’s future course of life in college or at work. Second, the amount of information on Facebook and similar sites is just so huge that a child could be inundated. Since parents could not effectively monitor children’s Facebook usage (parents do not have so much time to sit by the side of their child every time they log into Facebook), it is highly possible that children could receive misleading information online. And since they are not equipped with the skills to distinguish the validity of such information, children are highly prone to such false information which could instill wrong ideas in their minds. Ideas formed at a young age are especially hard to uproot, thus the effect of such misleading information online could be detrimental.
I am not saying that letting young children use Facebook causes only harm but no benefit. The benefits and convenience of social networking sites are clear to see and need no further elaboration; however, the dark side, especially the harm on young children, is less obvious and is what needs to be brought to the spotlight.
I would also like to point out that the reason for many children under 13 to join Facebook or Twitter is not actually the content of the websites themselves but the influence of peer pressure. More interestingly, such peer pressure is a ‘circular’ rather than a ‘straight-line’ influence: when person A starts to use Facebook, he might influence his good friend B to register an account as well; B then influences C and C influences D. And the fact that B, C and D (who could be good friends of A as well) are now on Facebook further convinces A to stick to the website even though he might find the site less appealing than he thought. Such circular pressure makes the task of protecting children from harmful materials on Facebook very tough since they are reluctant to quit Facebook (and therefore sacrifice their friendship forged online) but at the same time they face the threat of misleading information on Facebook without appropriate filters.
Given the negative impacts of using Facebook and the difficulties in eliminating such impacts, I was actually glad that I started using Facebook and Twitter only at the age of 16 when I had some concepts (though basic) about right and wrong and could make sensible decisions about what to believe online.
Indeed, children nowadays can have thousands of ways to interact with their friends on Facebook, many of those I could never have imagined when I was 13. But I still miss the time when I went to the backyard of my friend’s house and played hide-and-seek from early afternoon until dusk. And I believe children today deserve more of those opportunities as well, instead of sitting in front of a computer screen and checking their friends’ status on FarmVille.