There’s been some discussion recently about Facebook making it possible for people under the age of thirteen to open accounts and create personal profiles at the popular social networking site. Predictably, many people have Strong Feelings about this possibility. They’re concerned about cyberbullying and social isolation, about predatory marketing towards children who don’t yet have strong media literacy skills. They’re concerned about kids spending too much time on the Internets instead of outside where, it’s assumed, they’ll have higher-quality interactions and participate in more healthful activities.
(Why is it always “outside”? When my mother was a child she used to be harassed by her parents for spending too much time with her nose in a book instead of our skiing or swimming or playing on the playground. These arguments for what’s acceptable or appropriate childhood pastimes predate the internet by decades, if not centuries!)
I have some Strong Feelings myself about this debate, although those feelings are very muddled. On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the desire expressed by adults to establish childhood has a time and place for children to develop as human beings, with (in an ideal world!) stronger support and protections than most adults have. My parents were very mindful about the amount of time we kids / the family watched television and/or played computer games (“online” time was not an issue, since we didn’t have Internet access at home until I was in college). As our parents, they exerted adult authority to participate in decision-making regarding age-appropriate media consumption. So I get where the anti-Facebookers are coming from, at least in part.
But there are ways in which the debate is making me edgy. To whit:
1) Why is it Facebook’s responsibility to limit participation to those over thirteen? Detractors are up in arms that Facebook is considering expanding user access to a younger audience, albeit with accounts that are tethered (it appears) to parents’ accounts. They believe this shouldn’t be allowed. Isn’t it up to individual families what is right for their youthful computer users? Arguing that Facebook, as a company, should be responsible for limiting children’s access to their social networking tools, seems analogous to arguments that television, movie, and video game producers should be responsible for limiting children’s access to their products. If parents don’t like what their children are watching on television, they always have the options to destroy, lock up, or simply not purchase a television and/or cable package. If parents don’t want their kids on Facebook, they can exert parental authority and say no. I might think that’s a shit way of influencing your kids (more likely to encourage subversion than compliance), but in the United States we allow parents a great deal of control over what their children have access to — and parents are definitely allowed to veto their children’s access to the ‘net.
2) To what extent is social media now part of our public commons? What are the implications of excluding children from (virtual) public spaces? I’ve written at great length elsewhere about the importance of children’s access to public spaces without being hated on by adults for being different and/or for being at a different developmental capacity. I believe as citizens we have a responsibility to make public spaces accessible to all – including children and youth. Granted, there are serious discussions to be had about whether Facebook — as a private company — constitutes a “public commons,” and whether the Internet is a “public space.” At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, increasingly, our online and “real world” social lives overlap. I spend 8+ hours per day in close proximity to a computer / online environment due to the nature of my work. I use Twitter, email, Google Reader, Facebook, Tumblr, and chat interfaces to communicate with family and friends, most of whom I also communicate with offline.
To some extent, a conversation is a conversation is a conversation, whether it happens via email, chat, Facebook, or over coffee at the local coffeehouse. I realize that we shell out millions of dollars annually to study how dissimilar the Internet modes of communication are from all previous forms of communication — but I honestly believe that sooner or later we’ll quit wringing our hands about the novelty of delivery system and realize that it’s content that counts, not the packaging it comes in. Children are growing up in an age wherein computing technology and the Internet landscape computers make possible will be an increasingly integrated part of our daily lives. So there’s an argument to be made that exploring that landscape with them is analogous to taking them on trips to the grocery store, or introducing them to the public library. Instead, it seems like many adults still think that children + internet connection = PRON and VIOLENCE. I’d like to see us get beyond that level of moral panic and actually discuss how to support children’s participation in multi-generational spaces as opposed to age-segregated ones.
(Not to mention the unspoken assumption in these conversations that children are exposed to sex and violence online but not in real life which just goes to show the class and social privilege that pervades such debates. For some kids, virtual spaces are a haven from real-world social isolation, bullying, and abuse. These children rarely figure in the adult-centric discussions about child-appropriate Internet use.)
3) Why do we use the language of addictive behavior for technology and/or assume computer use is a “bad habit”
children people need be protected from? When people raise concerns about young peoples’ media consumption and/or technology use, they overwhelmingly employ the language and framing of harmful addiction. They talk about brain chemistry and habit formation and about how children will get sucked into online environments to the detriment of other activities (see my aside about the importance of “outside” play above). My sense is that much of this concern (trolling?) is not actually about the child or children under discussion, but about what the adult doing the talking wishes for themselves, now or in some idealized Childhood-that-never-was. When a person holds court about young people being sucked in the drama of social media, or not getting enough real-world playtime, I hear a) that the grown-up in question wishes they felt more in control over their own virtual interactions, and b) they feel helpless about the positive power of real-world interaction to compete/co-exist with virtual interactions.
As grown-ups, we should be modeling the sort of life interactions, social skills, and self-care we want the next generation(s) to adopt, learn from, and improve upon. If we feel that computerized interactions are inferior to face-to-face interpersonal time, the first thing we need to do is get our own house in order rather than turn around and police the dependent, vulnerable, and marginalized by concern-trolling their online habits (via, it should be noted, blogging online!). To my ears, hand-wringing about children’s use of technology is most often a proxy for hand-wringing about our own discomfort with the virtual world.
Bottom line: I don’t see this as something Facebook, or any other social networking platform, has a responsibility to police. Rather, it’s something that should be worked out within families in the manner we work out most other questions of children’s personal autonomy vs. parental rights and duties to protect and foster the well-being of their young. And grown-ups who fear what social media is doing to the quality of human interactions should look first and foremost to their own lives and think about what social media does and doesn’t do for them.
Personally? I’m grateful that the Internet has made possible the level of continued connection I have with my family and friends, near and far, and the way it keeps me hooked into political and intellectual circles that I would not otherwise have the time or social stamina to interact with. There’s an overdue post in here somewhere about how, given my personality and temperament, I have much more energy to think and talk with people about ethical and social justice issues online (via text) rather than in-person, where I burn out almost instantly — especially in groups involving more than two or three people to concentrate on (which is why the best classes in undergrad and grad school were also the most draining!). The point is, there are children like me growing up in the world right now. Children for whom textual communication is their strength, and playing outside on the playground with large, chaotic groups of children is not. Those children are probably content to spend 8+ hours a day reading, writing, drawing, online and off, possibly going out for a solitary game in the back garden when they feel like it, or helping an adult bake bread in the kitchen, perhaps having a good friend over to play quietly together for a few hours, or composing an email to a pen-friend, or playing a collaborative online game together. Talking with a grandparent over Skype or exploring the local library’s online catalog. These are all things I either recall doing as a child, or would have done had the technology existed. And I don’t think any of them are inherently damaging.
Discuss, Harpies! What do you think about the (virtual) commons, and children’s participation therein? If you are a parent, or interact regularly with young people, what observations do you have about the under-twelves interacting in virtual spaces? If you were under twelve with access to the Internet, what are your observations from first-hand experience? Are you happy with the balance of online/offline social interactions in your life? If not, what efforts do you make to alter that balance? I hereby cede the floor.