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Underage Kids on Facebook: Is the Internet safe for 8-year-olds?

It hit me like a ton of bricks the other day when I noticed a friend of mine had been “friended” by an 8-year-old from my children’s school – yes, an 8-year-old. So, out of curiosity I started checking out how many kids were on any of my friends’ “friend” lists, and there were quite a few. Just a quick glance and I had tallied a couple of 8-year-olds, a dozen 10-year-olds and at least 20 seventh- and eighth-graders. These numbers were just people that I could personally identify from my children’s small private school, and there were quite a few more on the periphery of my “actual” friendship circle as well.

As responsible parents, we have heard the areas of concern with children and social media and the horror stories of predators and scam artists targeting our young kids. Why a parent would purposefully open that up to younger and younger kids is beyond me.

Facebook’s stated age mimimum is 13, and younger kids should not be there, period. But in each case that I looked at of an underage kid with a Facebook page, the parents were “friends” with their own child, which means they were complicit in getting them the account. So to see the level of security, I investigated every account. All but one of these kids’ accounts clearly allowed “friends of friends” access. I was able to view all these kids’ pictures and information.

But, parents, really, how well do you know all of your 300 Facebook friends? Remember, if you’re not careful with the privacy settings (see below), you have just given them access to YOUR child. Perhaps that guy that you knew in kindergarten turned out to be a sex offender, or the woman you worked with two jobs ago now does identity theft. Either of these predators could pretty easily determine the age, school and location of your kids. Not only can they view and extract information off your child’s page, they can leave private messages for your child and have a direct line. Your child might not even recognize that he or she is being manipulated. After all, as far as a child is concerned, these people are friends with his or her parent. Even with a thorough conversation on the subject, you don’t want to leave it to an 8-year-old to discern the level of risk.

So here is a news flash for parents that are getting these kids accounts: The safety, content and exposure do not counterbalance whatever social benefits the kids are receiving. Just because you are your child’s “friend,” it doesn’t mean you will see everything they do. If they are “friends” with their 20-something aunt that is still in college, does your 8-year-old kid really need all the information that she may be providing? Do you want him or her hitting a link because a family friend “likes” True Blood?

While you could possibly make it more safe for a child to participate by being vigilant about certain things such as privacy settings and whom they friend, it still is not a complete solution. How many times does Facebook change its platform that resets the privacy? And even if you help your child manage friendships, just how many Facebook profiles are truly appropriate for 8-year-olds? The ONLY way this type of access could be considered “safe” is if you are sitting on top of them and micro-managing every click. If you need to do that, then clearly they are not ready, so why would you even open the door?

The kids really do not belong there, and it is up to all of us parents to speak out, pay attention and perhaps exert a little parenting peer pressure to keep them off of Facebook. As a parenting community, we need to be aware and follow a few simple rules when dealing with this issue:

  • Do not let your child get an account. Facebook has given you an easy out: It is not allowed for children under 13 years of age, so stick with that rule.

  • Secondly, if a young child “friends” you, do not accept. Risks for young children are high, and if that doesn’t motivate you, then think about how saying yes opens you up to all sorts of trouble. What if you post something a parent of a young child finds offensive? I don’t need kids viewing my self-mockery of my parenting skills, telling tales of my own kids or to see photos of me with my friends drinking beers back in the day.

  • If you have “friended” someone under 13, send a nice note that says you didn’t realize there were age restrictions and you are uncomfortable breaking those rules. Or, if you’re especially concerned, consider reporting underage children’s pages to Facebook.

  • Post on the issue and talk about it. Make it clear to your friends why you don’t want to have young ones as your Facebook friends.

  • Double check your own privacy settings to see if they reflect what you think they are. Don’t allow your material to be seen by non-friends if you’re concerned about what kids might find.

Using Facebook within these parameters can help put it back to what it’s best for: finding and keeping in touch with friends, networking and having fun – as adults.

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