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The pre-teen Facebook dilemma

| Monday, Jan. 30, 2012

In a recent girls' group led by Melissa Sullivan at Eden Hall Upper Elementary School, the fifth-grade girls, ages 10 and 11, mainly wanted to talk about something they're not supposed to know much about: Facebook.

Several of them already have profiles.

Pre-teens are supposed to be barred from setting up accounts, but reality differs. According to Facebook rules, users must be at least 13. But, when kids need only to fudge their birth date, getting on Facebook can be easy.

Sometimes, parents help their underage kids open an account, Sullivan says. Other kids sneak to open an account, sometimes under an alias, and hope their parents don't find out. Sullivan sees many kids -- more girls than boys -- who are either on Facebook or trying to convince their parents to let them on. Parents often give in to the peer pressure because of older siblings and other family members on Facebook, and they don't want their younger kids to miss out on the fun.

Not a great idea for all

Let the younger kids miss out, advises Sullivan, counselor at the Gibsonia school, where kids attend weekly lessons about bullying and other stresses. The dangers and downsides of Facebook far eclipse the benefits for pre-teen kids, she says, and even younger teens who join the social-networking site are opening a Pandora's box.

"Are fifth-graders emotionally mature and equipped enough to handle the world of Facebook• My answer is a resounding no," she says. "Even 13-year-olds, I think, are too young."

Pre-teens and young teens tend to be impulsive and lack discretion about what is appropriate to post, Sullivan says. Think about your own school days and how mean kids can be, and add in the power of the Internet. That catty note you passed to a friend in sixth-grade now is an electronic post that numerous kids can see, resulting in humiliation for someone.

According to a recent study of more than 1,000 parents who have kids ages 10 to 14 living with them, 78 percent of the parents either knew or approved of their underage kids getting onto Facebook.

Jason Schultz, co-author of the study published in November 2011 in the "First Monday" online journal, says he wasn't surprised by the results. However, he says that the minimum-age Facebook rule forces parents and kids to lie about their age.

The rule resulted from the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires commercial websites to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children under 13. Facebook opted to avoid dealing with laws about parental consent and privacy protections by setting 13 as the minimum age, Schultz says.

Facebook officials in California did not respond to a request for an interview.

Who makes the rules anyway?

Parents, not the government or a website, should be deciding the rules for their children, and parents should be flexible, Schultz says. Denying kids Facebook access can create a power struggle.

"The more we can encourage parents to work with their children instead of against them when it comes to new technologies ... over the long term, we're going to have better parent-child relationships," says Schultz, an assistant clinical professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's very unfortunate that parents are put in this position. No parent wants to encourage their child to lie."

Sullivan disagrees. She sees many students who are devastated by bullying or other stress from actions on Facebook. Parents should protect and simplify their children's lives by not allowing Facebook use until the kids are teens.

She urges parents faced with the argument --"But everyone else is doing it" -- to respond with: "I need to take care of you, and I know it's difficult to be left out. If you're a good, kind friend, people will want to be your friend whether you're on Facebook or not."

Missy Kurpakus of Sarver, has two teens -- Kasey, 17, and Keegan, 16 -- who are on Facebook. But neither of her younger girls -- Corinne, 13, and Chloe, 11 -- are allowed to join yet.

"I've just seen too much trouble with middle schoolers with it," says Kurpakus, 44, who works as a physical education and health teacher in Natrona Heights. "Children will say very nasty things and post things that they shouldn't."

Jenifer Amundson, 45, of Greensburg, and her husband, Jon, allowed their daughter, Rachel, on to Facebook when she was still 12. But she was nearing the end of sixth grade, which is middle school in the Greensburg Salem School District. The Amundsons carefully instructed Rachel, now 13, about what is appropriate and inappropriate to post.

"As long as we, as parents, discuss the limits and expectations ... Facebook can be used as a positive way of communication," Jenifer Admundson says. She, herself, doesn't use Facebook, the concept of which she calls ridiculous. "We, as adults, have to monitor and really be clear.

"Can you imagine those notes you used to pass around in middle school ... being posted out there for all to see?"

However, Admundson cautions parents: After the Facebook genie comes out of the bottle, you can't put it back.

"If my husband and I had to do this all over again, I would not have said OK to this," she says. Her fifth-grade son, Reid, 10, is not interested in Facebook. "I truly don't think these children are ready cognitively, emotionally and socially.

"Now, I could not take my daughter's Facebook away."

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