We all know that the legal age to use social networking sites like Facebook and Foursquare is 13. Yet, we all probably also know of least one, if not several kids, who are younger than 13 and are using the sites.
Forget playgrounds and Pokemon cards, young kids are flocking to social networking sites in record numbers. According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports magazine, about 2.5 million Facebook users are 11 or 12 years old, and nearly 5 million Facebook users are under the age of 10.
Technically, Facebook — and other social networking sites like Google, Foursquare and Formspring — sets the minimum age at 13 and requires new users to enter their birth date to confirm they meet the age requirements, but there is nothing they can do if a kid who was born in 2002 enters 1972 as her year of birth.
So is it a big deal? After all, 13 is just some arbitrary age set by the companies, right? The problem is that even with careful parental supervision, the potential for cyber-bullying during the tween years is huge, and kids of that young age may not be able to distance themselves from the negative comments.
Strict privacy settings can help to protect underage kids on Facebook, but it's another site, Formspring, that has experts really worried. The site is relatively new — it has only been around for 18 months, but it is sweeping through middle schools and high schools like wild fire. It's similar to Facebook in that it lets users set up a profile and connect with friends. But rather then just post boring old status updates, Formspring prompts users with questions. From their website:
"Centered around a mission to help people get to know each other better, Formspring lets people share interesting and personal responses about anything that matters to them. With tens of millions of members in over 120 countries, Formspring is focused on giving people around the world a new way to relate to one another and reveal their unique stories and personalities."
Can you see the potential for disaster here? What's worse, Formspring allows users to post anonymous answers to questions posed by others. So kids may see anonymous comments such as "Ur fat" or "Just shut up and die" and not realize that it's probably just some twisted "friend" or "friend of a friend" messing around.
The site just recently began filtering comments to remove "inappropriate language." That's a good start, but it doesn't do much to catch comments that are just plain mean. And with almost 30 percent of its 10 million comments a day posted as anonymous, it gives cyber bullies free reign to spread gossip and hateful comments.
So why would any parent let their kid on such as site? The truly crazy part is that kids don't even have to be users to feel the stress. Many tweens whose parents don't allow them to set up a social networking account worry relentlessly over what is being said about them on these sites. So do you let your tween set up an account to ease their worries or ban them from the sites altogether?
What would you do?