[Originally Published at Forbes.com on 8th June 2012]
Emily Bazelon at Slate thinks that the suggestion this week that Facebookmay open up to under-13 year olds would be a bad idea. As regular readers can imagine, I disagree. However, Bazelon has been one of the more thoughtful
journalists on the issue of social interactions amongst children and teenagers and so her thoughts are worth considering seriously.
Bazelon articulates several concerns and ends up concluding that it would be a good idea for governments to look to restrict childrens’ access to social networks: “Figuring out how to monitor kids online is hard enough as it is. We don’t need Facebook to make it harder.” So what are her concerns?
First and foremost is bullying. Bazelon haswritten extensively about Phoebe Prince, a schoolgirl who committed suicide after being bullied (including on Facebook). Her concern has been about the criminal treatment of the alleged bullies and how these cases can be more complicated than they might appear on the surface. Since then, Bazelon has had a keen interest in the issue. She quotes Pew data that bullying occurs on Facebook and that “unkind things” were experienced by many, especially 12 and 13 year old girls. But interestingly, she quotes this data without much comment. For instance, the obvious one is that bullying and socially negative events occur to these same children outside of Facebook. Is Facebook a new medium for an old issue or an instrument that increases these behaviors? The data does not say.
Second, Bazelon turns to research, mainly by Stanford professor Clifford Nass, that 8-12 year girls had more social success when they had more face-to-face communication but also that those who used online communication had more negative feelings about their friendships and were more likely to be friends with others who they think their parents will disapprove of. Nass claimed that Facebook was akin to junk food. It drew activity away from better things.
This intrigued me so I tracked down the actual study that was the source of these conclusions; published in Developmental Psychology just this year. The associations there were indeed correlations found in the study. But they were just that and in the paper the authors claimed no causal inference could be drawn (even more so because the survey itself was conducted online). And that is important. Because what could be happening is that the types of children hanging out online may be precisely the types of children who struggled with face-to-face communication. In other words, there is no guarantee at all that obliterating Facebook from their lives (and by the way, the study did not single this out specifically nor make any claim it would be a good idea) would improve their social outcomes. It could. But equally, it may be that for those children, Facebook gave them confidence in friendships in a way that stimulated face-to-face communication. The study hints that this may not be the case as those online were less likely to also engage in face-to-face communication. But we would like to work out if they truly were these substitute activities or complements. That matters.
But even more so, if the goal is to encourage more face-to-face communication, the study identified another potential culprit that took away from this: reading. In some of the regressions this had a bigger negative correlation than online activity. Children who read more also had less socially successful outcomes. Now I don’t believe there is a causal story here any more than I believe that there is one for Facebook but, if you are going to advocate banning Facebook on the basis of this, surely you might at the very least wonder whether reading shouldn’t be getting the large subsidies and active pushing it is getting now.
Now, as I wrote about the other day, Facebook are not moving to do anything illegal but in fact to make legal a prevalent activity. They will do this by providing a mechanism for parental permission. What Bazelon appears to be against is allowing parents to give permission for their children to be on Facebook. And in the end, she argues that this might be convenient for some parents, quoting K.J. Dell’Antonia at Motherlode: “As a parent, the biggest difference I see between a Facebook that allows children and one that doesn’t would be that more children on Facebook would mean more social pressure to join.” This seemed to me to be the weakest argument of them all.
There is a thin line between banning Facebook to shield children from social pressure than banning children from all manner of activities because of perceived risk to some of them. This is a theme that Lenore Skenazy has taken up with her Free Range Kids movement. This movement rails against the vast swathe of restrictions placed on parents (both themselves and legally) that prevent kids from developing independence in the world. The same applies for online activities. Do we want children to be shielded until age 13 and then unleashed without any parental instruction?
My own experience with my 13 year old daughter suggests not. I am blessed that she is on Facebook and is still my friend. That has allowed me to observe her first years of interaction on that medium. In fact, for the most part, it is my only observation of her social interactions. And I must tell you that, for the most part, it has been very positive. There are constant reaffirmations and not about looks — in fact, I don’t recall seeing that. What is more I even saw an incident where someone made a homophobic remark only to have their friends come down on that as inappropriate very quickly.
And for my daughter I have been able to guide her. For instance, “You can complain about such and such homework but don’t complain about a teacher by name.” Once she posted an insensitive remark in an update that she didn’t realise could be taken that way. She ended up being called on it and apologised. There was real social learning going on there and I could then talk to her about it.
If you ban parents from allowing their kids to join Facebook at their own social pace, you prevent us from having a role in their social education. Ms Bazelon, do you really think that will improve their social success by denying parents that option?