What’s the right age to join Facebook?

I did a double take yesterday when I was tracking a conversation on Twitter to find the original Tweet (about a TV show) had come from one of my niece’s friends – a 9 year old. Seriously? Why would a 9-year-old need a Twitter account?

Twitter is fun and great and useful, and my Tweets in particular really are quite marvellous.

But Twitter is completely uncensored and home to countless thousands of offensive accounts carrying messages, links and images of pornography, violence, racism, pro-suicide, pro-anorexia, or any combination of the above.

Maybe your child is only following Dr Who, the Moshi Monsters and Disney Channel but it's a moment's work to type a rude word into the search box. It's the 2011 version of what we used to do on the school bus home, when we went looking for the rude pages in Judy Bloom. The difference being that the worst thing about Judy Bloom was never being able to meet someone called Ralph without sniggering. The worst thing about Twitter? Could be a good deal more sinister.

I feel even more strongly about kids on Facebook. It makes me sad when I see parents who I know would be horrified at the thought of their kids walking home unsupervised, allowing their kids to have Facebook accounts.

"Oh, but my daughter’s Facebook account is private, and I’m her friend," you say.

That's lovely, dear.

But I can guarantee it will take your 9-year-old and her friends about two minutes to work out how to add Mum and Dad to a special friendship list that means they don’t see half the updates on the network, and certainly none of the interesting stuff. 

And Facebook isn’t just about who’s on your child’s friendship list. I’ve yet to see a single Facebook account that’s completely locked down – Facebook makes it virtually impossible to achieve.

The odds are if your friend posts a photo on Facebook and you comment on that photo, all your friends can see the photo. If you comment on a friend’s status update, all your friends can view that status update.

And the thing about Facebook is there’s absolutely no guarantee that person with a photo that looks like a 12-year-old kid actually *is* a 12 year old kid. So your child makes friends with someone because they are already friends with their best friend. You have absolutely no way of guaranteeing the identity of that person, who now has access to all kinds of information about you.

You can right-click on any Facebook photo and save it to your own computer. I’ve seen two stories this month about teenage girls who have had photos stolen from Facebook and found them on porn sites. Try explaining that to your future university admissions panel or potential employer.  

You might track the messages on a Facebook account by having them sent to your email address, but that only tracks incoming messages, not outbound. And it doesn't allow you to track Facebook chat. Or the links your child might follow to websites and applications outside Facebook itself.  

I’ve worked as a technology journalist for around 12 years now, and I’ve yet to find a single expert who thinks it’s a good idea for kids to be on social networks.Yes, there are all sorts of guidelines about protecting children on Facebook. But surely the bottom line is that children don’t need to be on Facebook or Twitter.

They don’t need you to lie about their age so they can access something that isn’t designed for them to use. They don’t need a Twitter account and they don’t need a smartphone – unless you’re hoping to teach them street smarts by letting them get mugged a couple of times. 

What do you reckon? When do you think the right age is to use Facebook and Twitter? 

 

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

33 Comments

  1. 17th November 2011 / 11:15 am

    Hee hee. As a grown woman I still snigger a little at the name Ralph! I loved Judy Blume!
    And as for Twitter and Facebook, I’m not sure when I’ll let my daughter on. I guess somewhere in the teenage years when everyone else in the whole class is on it. I think 9 is way, way, way to young though.

  2. 17th November 2011 / 11:26 am

    My sister allowed her daughter to join Facebook when she left primary school (she’s 11) as a way to keep in touch with friends she won’t be at school with any more. I was a bit freaked out by this, and have locked down her profile as much as possible. The way she uses Facebook is completely alien to me – she and her friends tag each other as family, she speaks in some strange text-like language that makes no sense, she animates pictures and share them with her friends…. It does worry me that she’ll find something she shouldn’t be looking at or be found by someone looking for young girls to chat with. In her case it all comes down to trust, she and my sis had a very clear conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable on Facebook and she knows the consequences. But it still worries me. I definitely wouldn’t want her on Twitter!

  3. 17th November 2011 / 11:29 am

    I agree – I haven’t yet got a child over the age of 8 so I don’t feel it is necessarily my place to preach but the number of primary school age children on facebook seems mad.
    Why do they need it? What is wrong with seeing each other at school? Sending emails or making phone calls to those friends? and playing standard games on a PC (lets face it the games on facebook aren’t really that amazing and unique are they!). Ok so I’m probably a hypocrite as all those things apply to grown ups too! I also think that allowing a child a facebook account, sets the wrong example by saying it’s ok to break the rules.

  4. 17th November 2011 / 11:31 am

    As far as I’m concerned, my daughter can have her Fb, Twitter account or anything similar. As soon as she hits her 65th birthday.

  5. 17th November 2011 / 11:31 am

    Also – I don’t buy into the getting my children something because everyone else has one so if they are the only one not on Facebook aged 8/9-13 then tough – they know that different families have different rules and Facebook use will be one of those.

  6. 17th November 2011 / 11:35 am

    I agree, I don’t think a 9-year-old can be trusted NOT to explore beyond the boundaries and it’s too young to be exposed to the potential consequences.

  7. 17th November 2011 / 11:36 am

    I think the problem with Facebook (as you know) is often Facebook. You think something is private then Facebook changes the rules and hey presto, it’s not private any more. I see so many adults caught out by that, let alone kids.
    Yes, you’re right that it’s definitely about trust, though.

  8. 17th November 2011 / 11:37 am

    I agree with the breaking rules thing – I think if you tell your kids it’s okay to lie to get a Facebook account, then why can’t they lie to buy cigarettes and alcohol or go to pubs and clubs? You’ve lost any moral authority you might have had, and kids love that sort of weakness!

  9. 17th November 2011 / 11:37 am

    Nice. It’ll take her *ages* to upload all her photos, mind.

  10. 17th November 2011 / 11:38 am

    Really? I laugh at those, “I had to buy her an iPhone because everyone else has an iPhone”.
    Great lesson to teach your kids, there.

  11. 17th November 2011 / 11:44 am

    As someone who has dealt with some really disgusting, nasty people on Facebook professionally I do not think kids should be on there.
    I was in AOL chat rooms at around 14 which to be fair was probably a bit young as I was naive but I didn’t get into anything bad. I think high school (so 14) is probably the youngest I’d think is acceptable and then really under supervision.
    I remember my Dad asking what a guy was Imming me and I got so pissed off! I think it was just some harmless flirting to be honest but still. As parents we have to be involved in our kids lives and that includes their online ones even if that makes us meanies.

  12. 17th November 2011 / 11:51 am

    Your point about involvement is key for me – it’s so easy for a child to use a laptop in their bedroom and be on Facebook without parents knowing what’s going on.
    But on a different note, now that my niece is my Facebook friend I feel I need to moderate my language! (I don’t put people in groups on Facebook, everyone sees everything)

  13. 17th November 2011 / 12:06 pm

    I really liked this post, and I agree with what you’re saying, I don’t understand half the privacy settings on Facebook anymore, and I’d like to think i’m pretty clued up on it all. I’ve been looking into all this on my blog too, feel free to take a look and leave your opinion 🙂 http://socialnetresearch.blogspot.com/

  14. The Real Supermum
    17th November 2011 / 12:37 pm

    My 12 year old daughter has JUST been allowed a Facebook account – why because EVERY friend of hers has one. She has moaned for months and her friends have even moaned at me. BUT we have the password – she is only allowed on it in the same room as us its locked down to the highest settings. She has to verify to us who she adds and explains how she knows them etc – the only people on it are her friends and our family. The 1st time she adds a random it will be closed down.

  15. 17th November 2011 / 12:55 pm

    Really interesting perspective, Emma, thanks for commenting.
    For me, personally, I do wonder how you justify that it’s okay to break the rules if everyone else is? I know when I was a teen, I’d have used this as leverage to be able to get up to ALL sorts.
    Do you also track things like who she tags in images, whether she can be tagged by people, whether her location is tagged in posts and images? Do you track her Facebook chat?
    I think those things (thanks to Facebook) are just incredibly tough to secure and I really would be concerned about children using them – do you feel confident and is that because you’ve talked to your daughter about it? I’d love to know how you’ve approached it.

  16. 17th November 2011 / 12:56 pm

    Thanks for commenting and sharing your link, Liz.

  17. 17th November 2011 / 12:57 pm

    I find smartphones terrifying. As one Internet security geek said to me last week – you have all these controls and filters at home and then you give a kid a high-speed mobile internet device that they can use anywhere, anytime, with no filters or controls whatsoever!

  18. 17th November 2011 / 1:09 pm

    Totally with you on this (oh, and the Ralph/Judy Blume thing too!). My 9 yr old is bugging me for a twitter account and her friend (same age) is on facebook. Her arguments are that you can ‘lock it down’ and ‘I will only look at her page’ – yeah right ! Sorry, I have told her that she can’t have FB until she is at least 13 and when she is 13 we will review the situation. Not sure about twitter – yes, it does seem innocent but there are some weirdos out there too !

  19. 17th November 2011 / 1:19 pm

    I’m with you… never ever might be a bit of a long time. So far my kids don’t know that Facebook or twitter will ever be available to them!!! like ever!!! I just don’t get parents who gasp when I send my kids to the library or the store on an errand won’t but leave their kids unattended on the internet for hours at a time. Insanity, clueless, or just plain stupid.

  20. 17th November 2011 / 1:37 pm

    As mine are boys and only 5 and 8 I have time in hand but not much only the other day my eldest was bugging me about a computer of his own – the answer is NO. A family computer so I can see what is goiong on,limit access to sites I think are not suitable and as for FB and twitter no way jose for a very long time as long as I can push it I think. I fear I am unduly harsh…

  21. 17th November 2011 / 4:36 pm

    True, but on the other hand she will have higher probability of misplacing her dentures than finding her photos on random porn sites.:) (but than again, with the ageing of the population i might be gravely mistaken….)

  22. Muddling Along
    17th November 2011 / 5:04 pm

    One of the big worries I have is the impact of this whole social media life on our children when they grow up and have to enter the workplace – it’s one thing thinking things are private but the reality is far different
    Short of changing our names on our 18th birthdays in the future I’m not sure there is much more we can do

  23. Midlife Singlemum
    17th November 2011 / 5:09 pm

    I’m glad that my DD is 3 years younger than Flea. I’m happy to take your lead on this one. Just don’t forget to tell us when it happens. 🙂

  24. Nikkii
    17th November 2011 / 6:35 pm

    Mine have had FB accounts since they were 11-ish? My 6yo has one but he doesn’t know it- my daughter needed another friend on Sims Social to access more gameplay and none of her friends played it.
    As far as breaking rules go – I’d be a bit holier than thou if I didn’t expect my kids to break rules and yes I mean the smoking, drinking and clubbing ones. That’s why I have very few rules 🙂
    1. Be home at an agreed time
    2. Keep your phone ON
    3. There’s nothing you can do, get into, throw up or ingest that’s too scary to phone me for help. Nothing.
    If they keep to these rules (and they do) I think they’ll survive long enough to leave home and worry about themselves (hahahahahaha!)

  25. 17th November 2011 / 7:56 pm

    I’m quite relaxed with most things (or I like to think I am) but Facebook and Twitter are things that I intend to be very strict with – I just don’t think it’s necessary. My 9 year old has a mobile which I know some people think is too young but I let her have it because I couldn’t see the harm in it and yes, a lot of her friends have one but I won’t be letting her anywhere near Facebook or Twitter just because her friends are on there, there are way too many potential dangers and as a parent I think it’s my job to keep her as safe as I can.

  26. 17th November 2011 / 8:25 pm

    I think Facebook’s more problematic than Twitter, for reasons already stated by other commenters. That said, I think by 9-13ish (depending on the intellectual maturity of the particular child), social networking in general is fairly ‘safe’ for children as long as you teach them about the potential dangers and how to protect themselves. i.e.:
    – Don’t reveal in public updates anything that might alert potentially dangerous people to your location or movements
    – Don’t agree to meet people you friend online, whatever enticements/claims they may make about their identity or intentions
    – Don’t post revealing information/photos/videos publicly
    – On Facebook, don’t accept people you don’t know as friends
    – On Twitter, if your updates are public, be wary of saying anything you don’t want ANYBODY to read
    I think, at the right time (which as I already said varies depending on the child) it’s best to give them autonomy and trust unless there are very good reasons not to. I find surreptitiously monitoring their activity a little like reading their diary – everyone needs some privacy and the ability to chat with their peers without parental interference/monitoring.
    Of course, they’re going to discuss things we might not like/approve of as parents, but as long as they’ve been instilled with the means to protect themselves then I believe it serves us better as parents to trust them. If they think we’re overly controlling of their online activity, they’re less likely to ask for (or respect) our advice and are more likely to behave in the kind of furtive or underhand manner that could place them in danger.
    When I was young (seems ages ago… oh, hang on, it was :)), the kids who did the stupidest, most dangerous things were invariably those whose parents placed the greatest restrictions upon them.

  27. 17th November 2011 / 9:05 pm

    I totally agree with you. My niece is 13 years old and has stropped her way to a Facebook account. Quite frankly I find it way too young, because although her mum tries to check her messages and chat (think the chat is now recorded in the messages), she has no control over the links her daughter clicks nor what content others are sharing. The most innocent looking apps can lead to pervy old men and God knows what could happen. It really scares me thinking what the Internet will have created once Amy is 12-13 years old… Social Media can be dangerous, even if you aren’t a naive 13 year old…

  28. TheBoyandMe
    17th November 2011 / 9:20 pm

    Oh my word, have you been in my classrooms recently? I am currently teaching all of the Juniors about e-safety and banging on and on about Facebook and twitter. Constantly reminding them that they should not have an account, they aren’t old enough until the age of 13 and shouldn’t be using them. However, what am I supposed to do when their parents have set the accounts up for them? I’m struggling against parents who don’t get it!
    Heaven help me and them!

  29. 17th November 2011 / 11:35 pm

    I’m so glad it’s not just me that thinks that the lower age limit is there for a reason. My kids are too young for their own account and I deliberately don’t tell them about accounts on there so they don’t ask for one. The most they have done is look at my or OH’s facebook or twitter. With supervision. That’s all they’re gonna get and yes, I am going to be mean mummy on this one because I don’t want to have to pick up the pieces. I don’t care if all the other kids have one.
    They had a few small issues at school with facebook but I was disappointed that they didn’t mention in the newsletter that children under 13 shouldn’t have an account anyway. They might not be able to stop everybody but I bet that some parents don’t know about the lower age limit.

  30. 18th November 2011 / 9:05 am

    I would agree that 9 is to young but today and yes things are different you will find most 12 year old’s have face Book account.
    Why, because it is part of their growing up culture, it is part of things that have changed. The things we are scared of are no worse than what can happen to them when they are out and about. Photo’s can be stolen from our blogs, easier than they can on Face Book. Hey we could all be featuring in a porn picture somewhere!!! 😉
    The child who is not allowed the Face Book account is often the child that has one in a false name, she get’s plenty of time on that whilst her parents have left her alone after school while they are at work. Though of course she is not legally old enough to be left alone! (True account there, just for the record!)
    I am a great fan of stepping into other people shoes, that includes my children’s (bit to tight though!)I wouldn’t let either of my children pressure me into something I felt wasn’t right for them or indeed unsafe but I also like to see it from their point of view too and equally they can step in mine to see mine.
    As for legal ages, let face how many of the people that have commented here has done something under the legal age? That would be me for a start.
    I would also like to say my child only a couple of weeks ago expereienced Face Book bullying, again she faces bullying in her re life too. My and indeed her view point on Face Book still remains the same.
    In turn I also respect my view point is not for everyone but it is I know it the right one for us.

  31. 18th November 2011 / 1:06 pm

    I read a deeply sad story in our local paper recently about a young teen who committed suicide over an “online relationship”. Heartbreaking 🙁

  32. 21st November 2011 / 10:02 am

    My 9 year old begs for a Facebook account because several of her school peers have one. I’ve sketched the reasons why she may not, including the 12 years age limit, and I know that if she did venture online it would be a one-day wonder like the much-coveted and rarely used DSi, but the fact the she is not allowed gives it a heady appeal that makes her clamour all the more urgently. It makes me exasperated with the parents who ignore the rules and put others like me in this position. I, by the way, refuse to join Facebook myself because when one of the school-gate mums unfriended another one she got threatened in the playground. I find a sheaf of Basildon Bond is a safer way to consolidate friendships!

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