Should children under the age of 13 use Facebook?

Since Facebook’s launch on 4 February 2004, the social media site has reached over 600 million active users worldwide. Currently, there are about 30 million users in UK, which is the 3rd largest country with a Facebook audience worldwide after the US and Indonesia. Three quarters of UK facebook users are divided into 3 categories; aged 13 – 19, 20 – 29 and 30 – 39. Source Clicky Media. Even though the Facebook user age is restricted to 13+, many children aged below this (aged 9-12 category) are registered on Facebook and lie about their age. I know a few friends who’s kids or little brothers and sisters under the age of 13 who have a Facebook account and their parents bizarrely think it’s ok or acceptable. On average, in Europe 38% of this age group are registered on Facebook. Being part of the biggest social networking site in the world to be with the ‘in-crowd’ at school seems enchanting and somewhat fun to these youngsters but they don’t understand, same goes for their parents the kind of risks they are putting themselves in especially with so many read articles online and in the papers where youngsters are victims of cyber-attacks, cyber bullying and sex offenders who act under a false identity.

Research carried out by the London School of Economics for the European Commission, was based on a survey of 25,000 young people – aged between nine and 16 – from across Europe. It asked if they maintained a social networking profile. In the UK, 43% of 9 to 12-year-olds answered yes, along with 88% of 13 to 16-year-olds. The Netherlands had the highest percentage of children on social networks at 70% – however many of these were users of Hyves, a site that does not have a minimum age. Across Europe the average figure for 9 to 12-year-olds was 38%.

Children under the age of 13 shouldn’t be allowed on it. Thats it. No questions nor arguments about it. The online industry isn’t a safe place for a youngster to be surfing the net without parental guidance or a hefty parental lock on the computer. In this day and age there are too many weirdo’s out there claiming to be someone a lot different to who they really are and it’s a frightening fact that many I’m sure ignore.

On Tuesday 3rd of May. a tv documentary was on More4 called “CatFish” abouta young photographer who innocently befriends an 8 year old girl with a precocious art talent on Facebook not an actual documentary about Catfish. They build up a friendship and he also becomes friends with her family after a while he begins to suspect there is something not so right about her -and her family- deciding to, with two film-maker colleagues make a film about his investigation.  Nev Schulman is the New York photographer that strikes up the friendship and who over a series of months receives paintings and drawings from the 8 year old prodigy in Michagan. After a series of email exchanges and phone conversations with her pretty older sister Meghan, Nev starts wondering if everything is as it seems, and travels to their hometown to find out the truth. Questions soon arise when Meghan sends Nev a number of songs — supposedly her own — that, after a quick Google search, are revealed to have been performed by other people. When confronted through an instant message chat, she insists the performances are genuine. Nev hilariously responds ‘These people are psychopaths!’, suggesting that this whole time he could’ve been talking to a man.

The film doc, described by Universal Pictures as “A Reality Thriller”  explores the world of the internet looking at the positives as well as the pitfall of the old internet and sites like Facebook. The film is a cautionary tale about how social networking sites are changing the way people relate toeach other and how that’s not always a good thing.  People who have profiles on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and so on are free to misrepresent themselves however they see fit and that can be dangerous, very dangerous even if the relationship happens to be between two consenting adults as it is seen here in CatFish. Often we’ll allow ourselves to become vulnerable with a person we’ve never actually met in the flesh and when the person doesn’t live up to our expectations it can be truely heartbreaking as Nev finds out.

The reason for my mentioning of the documentary is due to the not-knowing of what’s out there. Nev befriends what he thinks is an 8 year old artist before striking up a flirty relationship with her older sister Meghan only to find out a very different story.  Having a child exposed to the unknown isn’t safe.  As you’re probably aware through all the media attention and hype over this ‘reality thriller’ this film is about a woman who made up a fake Facebook profile, which she then used to create a relationship with someone who eventually discovered the truth. The woman who created the fantasy Facebook world is Angela Wesselman-Pierce who is in fact the 8 year old’s mother. Ok so she’s not some crazy person but someone who clearly needed escape and Nev gave her that through the constant contact and through her paintings. You just have to wonder though about all those others who need a form of escape like Angela who strikes up a friendship with whoever that they may not be who they say they are.

The argument I suppose here is, is Facebook a safe enough place for children to use, even if they maybe mature enough (as many are definitely not)? What do you think should be the rules for children on Facebook? Or for that matter any social networking site?

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