But, of course, it's not that simple. Once children are old enough to be able to figure out how many years they need to add to their real birthdate to reach the minimal age, there is nothing stopping them from simply lying about their age and signing up anyway. And they seem to be doing that by the score! In June 2011, Consumer Reports estimated that there were about 7.5 million Facebook users who were 12 or younger. And a recent report by the Pew Research Center said that 46% of 12 year old who are online participate in social networking sites such as Facebook, compared with 62% of online 13 year olds.
So there are a number of reasons to be concerned about middle schoolers using Facebook. A major concern, of course, is the fear that predators may be targeting this young and naive age group, trying to entice them to reveal information or do things, including meeting their "online friends" someplace in person, that are dangerous, inappropriate, or otherwise creepy. There is the threat of "cyberbullying"-- mean messages, embarrassing photos or videos, or the intentional exclusion of certain people from desired groups of their peers, which can all take place online without any adult being aware of it going on. Plus, it creates a bad precedent of children lying online; if they can "fool" Facebook, they can transfer that technique to lying about their age to gain entrance to even more adult sites that require users to be 18 or 21.
Another issue that middle schoolers should be aware of is the fact that anything they post to Facebook can become part of their permanent record. Even if they delete information rated to embarrassing or illegal activities (underage drinking, illegal drug use, or other typical preteen actions that might show a serious lack of common sense), that entry may be kept by Facebook and shared with whomever Facebook chooses to do so--advertisers, college admissions, potential employers, etc. Control over any information posted is one of the things all Facebook users give up when they set up an account, usually without having bothered to read the long, boring legalese that basically gives Facebook the right to do anything they want with anything posted. And just this weekend, the Washington Post had an article about the increasing use of social media background checks as a routine part of the current job application process.
Of course, the other side of the argument is that if you look at the Pew data, it seems like when your middle schoolers tell you that "everyone else is doing it," they might be telling the truth! If their figures are right (they seem a little high to me, and I haven't researched the study methodology or anything), then almost half of online 12 year olds have a social media presence. Things like Facebook are becoming increasingly important as a means for socializing and staying in the loop about what is going on with friends and peers, even among the preteen set.
One alternative is to eschew Facebook for one of the social networking sites that have been set up specifically for the middle school or younger crowd. NPR recently posted the following sites as safe places for preteens to develop their social networking skills:
1. ScuttlePad (2010) Age 7+
Social network with training wheels is safe but limited.
2. Togetherville (2010) Age 7+
Kids' social site connects to parents' Facebook friends.
3. WhatsWhat.me (2011) Age7+
Tween social network with top-notch safety features.
4. Yoursphere (2009) Age 9+
Kid-only social network promises to block dangerous adults.
5. Franktown Rocks (2009) Age 10+
Music and social networking combine in safe, cool hangout.
6. GiantHello (2010) Age 10+
Facebook-lite gets a lot right, but watch out for games.
7. GirlSense (2009) Age 10+
Safe, creative community for tween fashionistas.
8. Sweety High (2010) Age 11+
Fun, closed social network for girls is strong on privacy.
9. Imbee (2011) Age 10+
Safer social networking if parents stay involved.
10. YourCause (2009) Age 13+
An easy, fun, socially networked way to fundraise.
In our house, this whole thing is a non-issue. My 12 year old son has NO desire to be on Facebook, and I have no desire to allow him to be. In fact, I refuse to establish a Facebook account for myself, mostly because of privacy concerns. This is not to say that I have anything to hide, but because I am concerned not only about Facebook's policy of retaining the right to use my personal information in any way they want (and can make money from), but also about the close ties between Facebook leadership and funders to government intelligence agencies. I still have friends in DC who are high up enough in various governmental agencies to know who tell me that the following video is not just something cooked up by some conspiracy theorists:
The bottom line is, middle schoolers need to realize that the whole thing is a lot more complicated than just swapping the latest news and pictures with their friends. Facebook is a great example for this age student to think through the old adage that "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Maintaining the Facebook network is a huge expense, and someone is paying for that expense somehow. Your middle schoolers may not care that the price they pay is a loss of privacy, but then again, maybe they will. At the very least, it is a good opportunity to demonstrate to them why you really do need to read through all those boring legal clauses we all want to click through on almost every site we use on the Internet.