In my most recent weekly Forbes column, “Common Sense About Kids, Facebook & The Net,” I consider the wisdom of an online petition that the child safety advocacy group Common Sense Media is pushing, which demands that Facebook give up any thought of letting kids under the age of 13 on the site. “There is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13,” their petition insists. “Indeed, there are very legitimate concerns about privacy, as well as its impact on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.” Common Sense Media doesn’t offer any evidence to substantiate those claims, but one can sympathize with some of the general worries. Nonetheless, as I argue in my essay:
Common Sense Media’s approach to the issue is short-sighted. Calling for a zero-tolerance, prohibitionist policy toward kids on Facebook (and interactive media more generally) is tantamount to a bury-your-head-in-sand approach to child safety. Again, younger kids are increasingly online, often because their parents allow or even encourage it. To make sure they get online safely and remain safe, we’ll need a different approach than Common Sense Media’s unworkable “just-say-no” model.
Think about it this way: Would it make sense to start a petition demanding that kids be kept out of town squares, public parks, or shopping malls? Most of us would find the suggestion ludicrous. Kids will be present in those environments not just because they want to be but because, more often than not, their parents or guardians want them to be there as well. That doesn’t me we just throw them into those environments and hope for the best. Instead, we assimilate children gradually into these public spaces and use mentoring strategies to make sure they understand how to cope with the challenges they will face. That’s the same approach we should take in the digital age with online public spaces like Facebook. As my fellow Forbes contributor Joshua Gans rightly notes, “we want children to experience these networks. Put simply, a parental supervised approach is like giving them training wheels for society.” This approach will better prepare our youth for a future in which their online and offline lives are increasingly intertwined. It represents a more sensible use of our personal and public resources since education and mentoring strategies are entirely constitution and avoid the protracted legal battles that would accompany new regulations.
For more, read my entire column.