Parents Talk How Old Is Old Enough For Social Media
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. This week we are turning our attention to Facebook and other social media and the way kids are or are not using it.
The question: Should kids under age 13 be allowed to sign up for the site? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg raised eyebrows earlier this month when he suggested that his company might challenge the federal law that prohibits kids under age 13 from signing up for Facebook. He later dialed back on that suggestion, saying that lowering the minimum age is not something Facebook is working on right now.
But parents have been talking about this. Earlier this year, first lady Michelle Obama shared her views with NBC on "The Today Show" about whether her 12 and nine-year-old daughters should be on Facebook.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TODAY SHOW")
MATT LAUER: Real quickly at the end, Sasha and Malia, are they on Facebook?
MICHELLE OBAMA: No.
LAUER: No? Is that because of who they are or because they're - you're not in favor of it? What's the reason for that?
OBAMA: I think we're lucky that there are a lot of real constraints, things like Secret Service and stuff like that.
OBAMA: But I don't - I'm not a big fan of young kids having Facebook. So, you know, it's not something they need.
MARTIN: That was first lady Michelle Obama talking to "The Today Show's" Matt Lauer. Still, the rules that apply to Sasha and Malia do not apply to everybody. A recent Consumer Reports survey estimated that seven and a half million of Facebook's users are under 13. And another poll by Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project found that 17 percent of parents did allow their preteens to have Facebook profiles.
We wanted to talk more about this, about the way parents are handling social media in their own households, so we've called on a panel of tech savvy moms and a dad to join us. Mario Armstrong is the host of the Digital Cafe on WYPR in Baltimore. He joins us from time to time to talk all things tech. And he's joining us for our parenting roundtable today. He's the father of one. We caught up with him in Los Angeles. Welcome, Mario, thanks for joining us.
MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hey, Michel. Thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: Also with us is Annie Feighery. She's a mom of three. She's a doctoral fellow at Columbia. She's co-founder of the website, The Domestic Agenda. And she's with us from our bureau in New York. Annie, thank you for joining us.
ANNIE FEIGHERY: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And here with us as usual in our Washington, D.C. studio is one of our regular parenting contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's an author and mom of three. Her most recent book is the memoir "Crazy Love." Welcome back.
LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: It's a pleasure, Michel.
MARTIN: Leslie, I'm going to start with you because you're in the Michelle Obama camp on Facebook policy in your household, which is - no.
STEINER: That's true. Right. I have a 14-year-old, a 12-year-old and a nine-year-old. And I believe that Facebook is a powerful and wonderful communication and technological tool, but just as my kids are not ready to drink alcohol or drive a car, they're not ready to use Facebook.
MARTIN: One of the reasons this was interesting to us is that you're one of our more, can I say - use the word liberal - parents when it comes to some of these issues?
STEINER: I would even go so far as permissive or in some parents' view, lax. I have a very open...
MARTIN: Open. You're very open about a lot of things. You talk a lot of things, like your own background, with your kids and you're very, kind of, open about a lot of social issues. So this is a surprise to us. So tell us why you feel so strongly about it? And you're really strict about this.
STEINER: I am very strict.
MARTIN: It's not going to be.
STEINER: It's way beyond Facebook's rules. My kids are not allowed - they will not have a Facebook page until they are 16. And I would love it if they waited even longer. You know, every parent has something that they're strict about and all kids are different. And my kids are - all three of them - are wonderfully headstrong and confident and social. And I love this about them. But I recognize that that kind of personality is a combustible mix with the power and reach of Facebook. And I have seen it be very destructive for kids. And my kids are not ready for that.
MARTIN: Is it the time management piece of it, too? You feel this is - it's a time drain and kind of like empty calories with time management?
STEINER: I do.
MARTIN: Or is it partly because of the bullying and all the other things that we've seen as a result?
STEINER: One issue is that I think it's a huge time suck for kids. They can spend hours on it without accomplishing anything. And, also, I feel like it's a time suck for me, too. I have friends who have different personality kids who have Facebook pages - very young ages, eight or nine. And what the parents do is the parents quote, unquote "monitor it."
And I do not have time to monitor my kids on Facebook. I feel like it's like saying to them, OK, you know, at age nine, you can start drinking alcohol as long as I sit here and monitor each sip of beer that you have. I think it's silly and, also, I cannot - I can barely keep up with my own email on Facebook, much less, you know, keep a really close eye on what my kids are doing online. And guess what? They don't want me to know what they're doing. They're kind of programmed to hide it. So there's no way that I can really monitor them and make sure that they're not doing something stupid.
MARTIN: OK. Let's hear from Annie, 'cause as I understand it, you're on the opposite end of the spectrum.
FEIGHERY: I am.
MARTIN: You actually are a fan of the Facebook and you allow your children, who are also as young as Leslie's, to be on it, to each have their own page. Do I have that right?
FEIGHERY: Yes. You know, Facebook doesn't allow kids under 13 to have a page, so it's tricky. I have to make a page and allow them to use it. But, you know, she compared it several times to drinking alcohol and we've never seen it as a dangerous thing. Social media is an opportunity to build new life skills that children emerging into the knowledge economy need. This is how they communicate and, frankly, I think I'm lucky that they want to share a social sphere with me.
It's not taboo. It's not secret. We do have to watch for the time. You know, we - anything they do online, whether it's Moshi Monsters or Facebook or anything, we ask them to set a timer so that they're aware of how much time has actually been spent on it.
MARTIN: You use a timer?
FEIGHERY: We use a timer. A timer sits next to their computer. Their computer is in an open place where I see it. You know, we have a typical Manhattan apartment so it's very small living space. And it's very hard for them to hide if they're online from me.
MARTIN: But you've got a 10-year-old who's been on for a year.
MARTIN: And what does he do with it?
FEIGHERY: Most of what he does is really, really sweet. He talks to his grandparents and his aunts and uncles. Other than that, he plays some Farmville and games like that. I'd say that at this stage he probably prefers Moshi Monsters, which is a comparable social media game for children. But it is a very positive social sphere for him right now. We've had entirely good experiences.
MARTIN: Mario, let's turn to you as both a tech expert and as a parent. Where are you on this?
ARMSTRONG: You know, I understand both situations and both scenarios. So on one side, we do want to expose our kids and our children to technology. It's important to do that because they need to grow up being able to be netizens. They need to grow up being able to make decisions in a connected society.
On the other side, however, there are real dangers from the, you know, cyber bullying, to all the way over to, just really, wasted time. So we try to, in this household, balance that and really try to find the right amount of just enough - whatever that is. And so I think this is a parental decision, but I do feel - I do lean towards letting our kids understand what the world is they're growing up in and using the tools to be better decision makers in that world.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're having our weekly visit with our parenting roundtable. We're talking about preteens and Facebook, whether children under a certain age should be allowed to use it. I'm talking with tech expert Mario Armstrong. He's the host of the Digital Caf�, a program that talks about tech issues. Annie Feighery, co-founder of the website, The Domestic Agenda. And one of our regular parenting segment contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner.
Annie, talk about the federal law that bars kids from signing up for Facebook. Because obviously kids can use social media. They can use websites with parental permission. I know my kids are really fans of PBS Kids whenever I let them use it, which is not often. It's like I hold it out there as such a plumb, that all beds must be made, all clothes must be picked up off the floor, all teeth must be brushed. I mean, it is like, to use that computer again on these sites, you have to be really on point. So, I really, I'm pretty...
FEIGHERY: We are exactly the same. It is the ultimate privilege to offer them for good behavior. The COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act keeps children off of, under 13, off of Facebook effectively. It was proposed in 1998 and took effect in 2000. And what's important about those two dates is that this is before Web 2.0 ever happened.
This act was envisioned as a way to keep children safe from marketing. And they didn't realize that it would ever be something to encourage them to go underground or lie about their age or into a - if you will - virtual dark alleyways of the Internet's social media sphere.
MARTIN: Annie, you're pretty - what's the word - you're as hardcore on the pro side as Leslie is on the against side. And what do you say to parents who - if someone, a parent, was approaching you for advice about this and saying, gee, aren't you worried about bullying? Aren't you worried about people pretending to be kids when they're really not, or predators using this site for their purposes? How do you address those concerns?
FEIGHERY: You know, in the research, the ideas about online bullying are very much overestimated. It's a small deal. People are still most in danger from individuals they know. And this is true offline and online. And beyond that, in studies that observe what happens when a kid is approached by an online predator, the overwhelming majority know what to do. They leave the social sphere or they ignore it altogether.
So, I think people aren't really realizing that the kids are able to handle this. And as was said earlier, they're good netizens. And beyond that, if you consider that girls, right now, make up less than 10 percent of computer information systems, new hires; as the mother of a daughter who, you know, as a scientist, I really want my daughter to not think the Internet is dangerous. Technology is her friends and not only that, technology is an exciting adventure. These are tools for life.
You can't enter the job world that is in front of these children and not know how to be yourself and generally communicate well in 140 characters or less.
MARTIN: Leslie, what do you think about that?
STEINER: First of all, I want to say that I'm not attacking Annie or any other parent who lets their kids use Facebook at any age. But there are lots of other tools out there that kids can use to enter the digital world. You know, my children - the rule in our family is you get a cell phone when you're nine. They Skype, they have laptops. They really are very tech and Internet savvy. But maybe it's because my kids are older, but I disagree with a lot of what Annie is saying.
I have seen a lot of bullying and name calling on Facebook, by girls, in my 14-year-old son's class. And they're wonderful girls, I know them well. But there's something about the power of Facebook to hurt other people's feelings and to create a feeling of attack. It's more destructive, and also, there's a record of it.
And I've even seen my son, in chatting, you know, say things to people that I thought - and I pointed it out to him - look, if you put that on Facebook and anybody could see it, it could really get you in trouble and hurt other people's feelings.
You also see a lot of rogue parties that a kid - Facebook is used to invite other kids to parties - and so a child's parents will be away for the weekend and it's not like when you and I were young, Michel, and we invited 20 people and 40 people come. You put it on Facebook and 600 people show up. It is - it's a very powerful communication tool. And we haven't even started talking about sexually inappropriate pictures being sent over Facebook.
And I just think that a 10-year-old probably is not doing that. But kids change very quickly. And by the time, Annie, your kids are 14, I think they might be doing a lot of things that you might not know about. And you might have the luxury of that your work set up so that you're home a lot or that your house is set up in such a way, but I think there are many, many parents who don't necessarily realize what their kids are doing and how destructive Facebook and other open format communication tools can be.
MARTIN: Go head, Annie.
FEIGHERY: The important thing is that you saw that this is an open public sphere. You can respond and help teach your children or help them handle the pain is they were the subject of it. This is a public space. And we are learning. It's a learning curve. There was a nice bit on an episode of "Glee" a few weeks ago, trying to help kids learn exactly what you said, that their words hurt, especially when they're online.
And to me those are all benefits that this is happening in a place. Now, the rule right now, is before and after the age of 13. So a lot of what you're talking about, you're right, is something that high school kids are encountering. But they're allowed online already. What Zuckerberg was trying to put forth was the idea that COPPA, specifically COPPA, not allowing kids under 13. And it's not just Facebook. You can't get a Gmail account either because of their policies of data mining.
This is hurting. It's doing more damage than help. We should allow kids to, if their parents say it's OK, to join social media.
MARTIN: OK. Mario, what about you? What is your thought here about, first of all, what do you recommend, both as a tech expert and as a parent, in introducing kids to this safely?
'Cause I'm still concerned, you know, there are a lot of adults who have been scarred by their - you know, we had a situation over the weekend where New York Congressman Anthony Weiner says a lewd picture was sent from his Twitter account. And he says that his account was hacked with the intent to embarrass him. And, you know, there are adults right now who are having trouble handling social media even if they, you know, they're fully capable of using it.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. So, I think there is a lot that's happening here and I think the bottom line is, we don't need to just be caught up in Facebook world or Facebook discussion. This is bigger than Facebook. This is something that is - could be ramifications, positive and negative, for all kids under the age of 13 for various types of different sites and services. And then new sites that could come about.
So I think if you are a parent and you really want your kids to learn social networking. What does that mean? How does one communicate in today's age? And how does that foster some powerful benefit or some value? If that's the case, then I think we need to be looking at those social media appropriate sites. There's social media sites for kids like MB(ph) and NeoPets and others that - maybe that's where they should start first.
And then, as they get older, then graduate into these other areas of these bigger spaces like Facebook. So, one hand, I know parents say to me, Mario, is there a silver bullet? I speak to parents all the time and they're, like, give me the silver bullet, Mario. And, you know, the bottom line from my perspective is there is no silver bullet. This is parenting in the 21st century.
You can use tools to help with that parenting if you so choose, but there is no silver bullet. So some parents will do monitoring software, others will do key logging software, which captures every key stroke that their child types or a website they visit. And they can have a report emailed to them with what the child is really doing.
MARTIN: So, three bullet points, Mario. You're saying, one, keep the computer in the public space in the way that Annie's described. Keep it public so you know where it is. Start slow. Sign up on kid-friendly sites. And there's one other thing that, one other point that you made, which is print and Internet bill of rights and have a - tell me about that.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. This is the parent/child agreement. I believe that when we're talking about the Internet, we should be having open communication with our kids. And I love the fact that both of the parents here are talking about, you know, however they feel about the situation, they're still communicating.
So having an Internet agreement, a parent/child bill of Internet rights, that you both sit down together at the table, go through it. I will not disclose this. I will not give out this information. I will not connect to these type of people. All of these things that will make you feel - and the child - recognize, wait, this is an area I can go and play in, but I still need to have my guard up. I still need to be paying attention so that I can become a responsible netizen.
MARTIN: Mario Armstrong is the host of the Digital Caf�. That's on WYPR in Baltimore. He joins us, from time to time, to talk all things tech. Annie Feighery is co-founder of the website The Domestic Agenda. That's actually an international advocacy group that advocates for maternal survival. She's also a doctoral fellow at Columbia University and a mom of three. Leslie Morgan Steiner is our parenting regular and a mom of three. Her most recent book is the memoir "Crazy Love." And Leslie was here with us in Washington, D.C. Annie from New York. And Mario from Los Angeles.
Moms, dad, thank you all so much for joining us.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Michel.
STEINER: Thank you, everyone.
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