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Photo by "Spencer E Holtaway" on Flickr Q: In response to some pretty nasty commentary and bullying (and slander of teachers, etc.) on Facebook, my son’s private middle school decided to insist on a no-FB policy. The administration was somewhat heavy-handed, asking the 10 and 11 year olds for their passwords and deleting their Facebook accounts. Nevertheless, they felt they were doing the right thing, given that so much of the bullying was specific to kids within the school. 

In hindsight, I think that the administration should have discussed their plans with students’ parents first: For those who do actually use Facebook responsibly, I feel there is no reason why they can’t access it with their parents in a shared capacity. But as this is a private school, the staff has the right to make whatever decision they wish when their values and their students and teachers are being harassed or bullied, right? What do you think? 
Perplexed Parent in Melbourne, Australia

A: Dear Perplexed:

I think there are actually two questions here: whether the school handled the situation appropriately and whether 10 and 11 year olds should be on Facebook. Like the rest of us, schools are in the process of figuring out how to manage these emerging online environments. However, it does sound like this particular approach was rather clumsy and inappropriately authoritarian. Instead of creating a safer environment, it annoyed people and pitted families against the system. Another approach would have been to review some of the resources that are being developed to offer support around such issues, which can offer guidance on how to intervene with the affected students and engage the community in determining how to proceed.

Research has more to say in regards to the question about whether kids this young should be on Facebook. Scientific knowledge about brain development implies that Facebook's minimum user age of 13 is, if anything, a little low. A tween’s brain simply hasn’t developed enough yet to really understand and carry out the tenets of cybersafety because the pre-frontal cortex—the area in the brain crucial for impulse control, future thinking, and what Freud called “superego” or conscience—doesn’t fully develop until a person’s mid- to late 20s. 

Therefore, although many parents believe that their own children are smarter than the average bear and can handle cybersafety as early as middle school, neurodevelopment occurs in predictable patterns and timeframes, and no 13 year old is there yet. Developing the skills necessary to be a responsible cybercitizen is not a matter of intelligence or experience—it’s a concrete fact of nature. 

In general, then, I do not recommend that parents start kids on Facebook before the official minimum age, and I often urge them to delay until their child is much older and can make good, accountable decisions for themselves. At that point, parents should ensure that there is no Facebooking (yes, it’s a verb now) until all kids have completed the essential tasks of daily life—like homework, physical activity (preferably outdoors), a sit-down meal with the family, and adequate sleep. Even then, it’s up to parents to set a time limit, because FB can be a huge time-sink, even for those of us with fully developed brains.

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Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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