I've tried to stay out of the brouhaha regarding Facebook's proposal to allow children younger than 13 to begin joining the site. Anyone who knows me can probably guess that I'm going to side with the children's ability to learn and adapt to this new technology, rather than just assuming that their primary activity of choice will be to connect with pedophiles and terrorists and wreak havoc across the world. But then I fell for this link-bait from Slate and had to respond in some way.
This is the long and short of it: with or without systems in place, kids are going to join Facebook long before they are legally allowed to.
A relative of mine posted to her Timeline earlier this week and asked her friends what age was appropriate (I'm assuming she did not know about the TOS requirements beforehand). Unsurprisingly, many of her friends commented that they allowed their children to join at 10, 11, and 12, with varying degrees of supervision. And for every parent that knows when their child joined Facebook, there are probably half a dozen more who don't even realize that their 2nd-grader is on Facebook.
This is probably an awful analogy to make, considering the subject of this post, but it's the only example I feel like I can accurately describe. Sex education. With or without it, teenagers are going to have sex. The question is, do they benefit in the long-term from programs being set in place to keep them safe and healthy while doing so?
After it became cool in the early 2000s to do the socially-conservative thing and spend millions telling kids that their boyfriends and girlfriends were icky, studies started to surface that showed abstinence-only sex education was positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and STD infections. The evidence clearly shows that these education programs (which are essentially the absence of education) lead to kids participating in unsafe sexual activities.
So let's bring the point back around to Facebook. What they are trying to accomplish right now is educate, inform, and equip children and their families with the tools necessary to keep themselves safe on the Internet. With their help, parents will be directly connected to their children's account, allowing them the ability to manage their friends lists, monitor their private messages or disable them completely, and a suite of other settings that could protect your child online. By opposing this proposal, you're essentially claiming that Facebook-abstinence is going to protect children from the dangers of the Internet.
And it's not.
Because since the beginning of time, children have been getting around the barriers set in place by adults. I'm pretty sure I got my first Neopets account long before I was 13, and this was in the dark days of the Internet where there was almost no way of knowing if SuperPetLuvr194 was a fellow teenager in Arkansas or a 55-year old man in Detroit.
Today's preteens are going to live within a world where they need to have the skills and knowledge necessary to remain safe and secure. Waiting until they are 13 or 14 to start training them in these skills may be too late.