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Social Networks & Kids: How young is too young?

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According to AdWeek, 7 percent of children under the age of 4 years old have their own Facebook page. Hey, 7%, may not sound like a lot to you, but to me, this means that 7 out of every 100 of these little tikes, have most likely poked, posted or updated their status before their first day of Kindergarten. This same article states that 21% of children 5-8 years old have their own Facebook page, and 45% of kids that are ages 9-12 years old have one as well. These parents are steadily enabling children as young as 10 years old to sign up for accounts, directly violating Facebook’s policy banning young visitors.

This policy allows Facebook to avoid conflicts with the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), stating that minors aged 13 or younger gain explicit parental consent to access commercial websites. Of more than 1,000 households surveyed for the study, 76% of parents reported that their child joined Facebook when she was younger than 13, which is the minimum age in the site’s terms of service. The study’s authors also notes, “Indeed, Facebook takes various measures both to restrict access to children and delete their accounts if they join.” The findings of the study raise questions primarily about the deficiency of federal law, & whether or not Facebook does enough to publicize its terms of service with respect to minors. Only 53% of parents said they were aware that Facebook has a minimum signup age; 35% of these parents thought the minimum age is a site recommendation, not a condition of site use, or thought the signup age was 16 or 18, and not 13.

Alternately, a growing number of networking sites are geared specifically toward younger users. Sites such as Disney’s Club Penguin, which is mainly a game site, but with limited social functions, as well as WebKinz and Whyville feature more restricted and supervised networking. These types of kids-oriented sites are almost like a training ground for future use of mainstream social networks, and kids as young as 5 have accounts at KidSwirl, a kids’ social-networking site patterned loosely on Facebook.

So maybe it didn’t surprise you that crafty, tech-savvy children across the country are finding a way to obtain Facebook, as well as other social media accounts so they can chat with friends, post pictures, etc. – even when they do not meet the age requirements. This information does not have me shocked. What I’m worried about is could this be damaging to our youth’s relationships & even worse, their brains, and can pre-adolescent site-usage lead to Internet addiction in the future?

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