Kids as young as five on Facebook

By James Fuller

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Bay of Plenty children as young as 5 are using Facebook and one of the region's largest secondary schools has responded to social media concerns by introducing a new curriculum subject.

The appropriate age for children opening Facebook accounts was brought to prominence in a recent Chicago Tribune article by American child advocate and author James Steyer.

Mr Steyer said children should not join Facebook until the age of 15 as social networks were "particularly impactful in terms of social, emotional and cognitive development".

Facebook's current age limit is 13. Responding to a possible new barrier of 15, local parenting expert Vicki Kirkland said she knew of children as young as 5 who were already signed up.

"Facebook is out of hand now. You've got intermediate children on Facebook, you've got young children on Facebook. I've got clients with children who are asking me to be friends, some as young as 5, 6 and 7 years old. There's a huge percentage of underage kids on there and it's certainly not being monitored closely."

Ms Kirkland, known as the Baby Whisperer, is also a mother-of-two. She said she had learned a lot about youngsters' interaction with Facebook on a professional and personal level.

Issues she was most concerned about included Facebook's use as a forum for bullying, the posting of indecent images, foul and abusive language, and inappropriate information regarding teenage relationships.

"They don't have the level of maturity until they are 15 or 16," she said. "I sometimes wonder if 15 is not still too young. And of course, if they are 'friends' with some of these really young children who are on there, they will be exposed to whatever is posted as well.

"What I tell teenagers is that what you put on Facebook will never go away. You can't take it off. With a lot of jobs now, prospective employers will be looking at your Facebook page and be asking to access it. You can tell a lot about a person's personality from that."

Ms Kirkland said parents should monitor their children's Facebook pages.

"As a parent we should be a 'friend' of our children on Facebook. That way you know what's going on. A lot of emotional problems children are having, or bullying, is exposed on Facebook. The parents who are not on there are kept in the dark.

"Parents, if you've got children who do not want to be 'friends' with you on Facebook, I would be asking the question: why?"

Bruce Farthing, deputy principal at Otumoetai College, said children needed to be educated in the correct use of electronic media.

"There is an onus and responsibility on parents to address this issue but failure there has meant it has become a responsibility for schools as well," he said.

In response to the issue, Otumoetai had this year introduced a new class in digital citizenship.

"It is an optional Year 10 subject but an extremely popular one. It is very detailed and covers topics such as etiquette, communication, education, access, commerce, responsibility, rights, safety and security. Etiquette, for example, educates children on how to conduct themselves online, sending proper and kind messages, and about posting and sending images as well."

The class is aimed at 14 and 15 year olds, the same age bracket proposed as a possible Facebook age limit.

Psychologist Tanzi Bennison, of Tauranga's Sunflower Consulting, said youngsters did not fully understand the long-lasting risks and effects associated with Facebook. Many teenagers were accessing the social network without their parents' consent anyway, she said.

"It is therefore so important that parents are actively communicating with their teens about the risks associated with Facebook and how to use it safely and appropriately. If a teen has access to Facebook, parents need to be actively monitoring their activity and having regular discussions about its use and the very real impact it's having on their emotional and social lives."

However, Martin Cocker, executive director at NetSafe, said Facebook was not as bad as it was often portrayed.

"I think people assume Facebook is the hub of all evil but actually it's not. It's one of the more organised and structured environments and certainly not the most dangerous for young people.

" Facebook is probably one of the safer environments because it now has considerable resources and methods in place to remove content which is inappropriate. In some regards, that offers a level of protection to people from making their own mistakes. Whereas if you look at some of the other micro-blogging sites, like Tumblr, it's much more likely that there will be damaging content posted there.

"We see a lot of concerns about what happens on Facebook but it's certainly not disproportionate to the size or market penetration of Facebook."

NetSafe is a national educative organisation, which provides cyber safety and security advice.

It works closely with schools on issues such as cyberbullying and in 2011 established a cyberbullying task force with the support of partners including the Ministry of Education.

Mr Cocker said the issue of a Facebook age limit was tied in with the parameters established by the organisation itself.

"From one perspective the right age is the age Facebook is properly catering to.

"Facebook sets the level at 13 and then set their safety and security parameters appropriate to a 13 year old."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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