Facebook has historically restricted access for kids under 13 years old, but that may be changing. Many kids already use the network, with or without their parents' consent, and many parents have raised concerned about privacy, safety and advertising.
Stephen Balkam is the chief executive and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, of which Facebook is a member. In a piece in the Washington Post, he argues that since kids are already on Facebook, it's time to move past worrying about whether they should be there. Instead, he says, the conversation should focus on how to keep the kids who use the social network safe.
No safety measures "will ever by 100 percent foolproof," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. But it's important, he thinks, to "get past the rather crazy situation that we have now where 11- and 12-year-olds, particularly, are lying about their age ... in many cases, with the assistance of their parents."
He makes several recommendations for parents who want to raise Facebook-savvy, and safe, kids.
Go on Facebook together. "I will be the last person to say, 'You must have your child on social networking.' That's nonsense. It's really about making choices about the child's development, about their sociability or not. And if they are coming to you pleading to go on, well, then you can sit down with them and have a good conversation, sign the family safety contract with them, and then, like with training wheels or the shallow end of a swimming pool, go in there with them. Get wet yourself, if you will, until they're ready to swim on their own."
Limit access. "There is a slightly, kind of, Facebook-lite experience, if you will, where kids, teens can only set the privacy settings as high as friends of friends. They can't do it to public. And there are some other restrictions as well. And so our feeling is well ... why doesn't Facebook consider a kind of Facebook-junior experience where the settings are, say, to friends only? Let the parents determine who those friends are and bring in some other restrictions and safety controls."
Report bullying. "Facebook has an extremely powerful reporting button. YouTube has, many of the sites now do. Let's make sure that we are good digital citizens and report when bad things happen. And by the way, this goes for the parents and the adults, too, because sometimes we adults don't model very good cyberbehavior, and the kids sometimes just copy what we're doing."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Right now, Facebook restricts access for kids 12 and under, but that may be changing, in part to reflect the reality that lots of those kids already use the social network. And so many parenting and privacy groups raised concerns about privacy and safety and advertising. In a piece in The Washington Post, Stephen Balkam argues that that concern is misguided since the kids are already there. He says the conversation needs to shift to focus on how to keep them safe. If you have kids under 13, call and tell us about your concerns about Facebook.
800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stephen Balkam is chief executive and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute and a member of Facebook's safety advisory board. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
STEPHEN BALKAM: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And full disclosure, the Family Online Safety Institute is funded in part by Internet companies, of those one of those is Facebook.
CONAN: You say we need to get past the question of whether tweens should be on. They're already there.
BALKAM: Well, according to the Consumer Reports study that came out last year, they found 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 already on Facebook. Another researcher, Danah Boyd with Microsoft, came out with figures of 55 percent of 12-year-olds, a third of 11-year-olds and 20 percent of 10-year-olds are already on Facebook and other social networks. Let's not forget, Facebook is just part of the larger universe. So the kids are already there. The issue really is how best can we accommodate them in this new, digital world of ours?
CONAN: So there are special privacy settings right now for older kids from 13 to 18.
Thirteen to 17 on Facebook. There is a slightly, kind of, Facebook-lite experience, if you will, where kids, teens can only set the privacy settings as high as friends of friends. They can't do it to public. And there are some other restrictions as well. And so our feeling is well, why don't we consider - why doesn't Facebook consider a kind of Facebook-junior experience where the settings are, say, to friends only? Let the parents determine who those friends are and bring in some other restrictions and safety controls.
The company has been struggling with this for a while.
BALKAM: Yeah. I mean, I've been on the safety advisory board a good two years. I've had both private conversations with them, and now this is a bit more public. Writing an op-ed in a paper obviously brings it up a lot more. But, you know, this has all come about because of the leak to The Wall Street Journal exactly a week ago. It was not a product announcement, by the way, by Facebook. It was a third-party developer, I believe, who leaked it to the paper. So, yeah, I mean, it's a tough and it's a challenging and it's a complex problem, and I think the company is trying to do its best.
CONAN: And there is an element of naivete here, no? Because even if your tween is on Facebook Junior, should it become available, they could certainly have their own account where they lied and have full access to everything.
SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Sure, they could, and they - none of this will ever be 100 percent foolproof. But we will get past the rather crazy situation that we have now where 11 and 12 year olds particularly are lying about their age and, in many cases, with the assistance of their parents, many of whom who want their kids on Facebook to share pictures of grandma or Uncle Fred who's in California or, you know, the older brother who's in Afghanistan. They see this as a place where kids ought to be but under some parental control.
CONAN: Yet you suggest in your op-ed parents should monitor their children's activities and be careful about this. Parents don't monitor their kids' homework. I mean...
BALKAM: That's not true. I mean, I - we certainly do it...
CONAN: Some don't. Some don't.
BALKAM: Some don't, obviously. And we're never going to get 100 percent perfect parents either. And even with kids who were older, we have a 16-year-old teenage daughter at home. I mean, we still restrict the times with which she can be online, particularly on Facebook so that she's certain to be doing her homework.
CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Balkam, chief executive and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute about Facebook and younger children, kids 12 and under. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's we'd get see Dave on the line, Dave with us from Charleston.
DAVE: Hi. Yeah. I might - I'm one of those parents that does allow my daughter who's under 13 to go on Facebook. And we set up the guidelines very clearly that I'm going to go on there and monitor her activity almost daily. And I do, and she understands that. And in doing that upfront eliminates the, you know, the possibility of creating it (technical difficulty) kind of keeping it private. And it's worked out very well. And I can tell you, all of her friends are on Facebook, 90 percent of them, so it is happening. You know, she is 12. Her peers are under 12, and it's what happens.
CONAN: And do you see from your monitoring of her account that her friends' accounts are monitored as carefully?
DAVE: You know, no, because you really can't really tell whether or not those other parents are there. What I do is I look at, you know, the messages they send back and forth, looking for, you know, the types of conversation that I would deem inappropriate. And she's got a good group of friends and, you know, and I could tell that's it's been going very well. And, you know, my daughter responds very well to rules and boundaries, and she understands them. She knows what I expect from her, and she knows what she expects from me. And so we've got some of that symbiotic thing going on, and it's worked out well.
CONAN: Oh, Stephen Balkam, there is your model.
BALKAM: I love what I'm hearing. Thank you so much for calling in with that example. I just wanted to throw out another example. In The Washington Post only last Wednesday, in the kids section of The Washington Post, there was an 11-year-old girl featured who had raised tens of thousands of dollars by a Twitter, not Facebook, for St. Jude's Hospital. Now, the Twitter terms of service suggests - not suggest - state that you have to be 13, and if we knowingly discover that you aren't, we will kick you off the service. So should that 11-year old be kicked off Twitter and not be able to raise money for St. Jude's? It's crazy. It's not a tenable situation for us to continue.
CONAN: Oh, thanks very much for the call.
DAVE: Thank you.
CONAN: There are concerns though obviously safety, obviously advertising, which - that's something that Facebook is dealing with on any number of levels but particularly at this age group.
BALKAM: Oh, I think so. And I think that certainly some people call for a complete ban on advertising for under 13s. And I had some sympathy with that position. I don't know how realistic that is. I mean, we have advertising on TV programs for kids already and magazines, and, you know, the kids live in an advertising-rich environment shall we say. But if there is to be advertising on an under 13 Facebook or an under 13 Twitter and all the other social media, let's make sure there's some really strong rules of the road so that kids are not bombarded, that they are screened and so and so forth.
CONAN: Let's go next to John. John is with us from Portland.
JOHN: Hi. My comment is a little bit different. I'm not actually a parent. I'm actually - I have seven brothers and sisters, and the youngest one is now 13. And she established a Facebook profile a couple years ago. And the idea was - my mother was aware of it, is aware of it, and is aware that my sister kind of fibbed, so to speak, about her age in order to establish her Facebook profile. But when we talked about it, when my mom and I talked about it, we were like, OK, is this something that we're going to allow? Is it something that's OK for her to be doing?
And basically, the decision that we came to as a family was that, I mean, she was going to create a Facebook profile anyway. It was something that she was going to do regardless of what our opinion was of it. So the way that we kind of went about it was we allowed her to do it, but we didn't make a big fuss out of it, but we are really prudent in examining what's going on with her Facebook profile, you know, the people that she's adding, who's on her friends' lists, making sure that she's not putting anything on the Internet that wouldn't be acceptable for, you know, a 13 blonde, blue-eyed, tall girl to put on the Internet.
And then basically, we just kind of keep things low key and make sure that there's an open dialogue of communication between, you know, mostly between me and my sister because there's, you know, all the parents hovering issue. But basically we just make sure that the line of communication is open to where she is - if she has any concerns, if somebody is contacting her or if she has an issue with, you know, something that's been put on her on page, there's a way to resolved it without there being a lot of pressure in her going behind our back and trying to get around the system, so to speak.
CONAN: And has - it sounds like there have been moments where you say, no, let's not go there.
JOHN: Yeah. And I know, I mean, I keep a pretty close eye on her profile. And to be honest, I mean, mostly what I monitor these days - now she kind of becomes smarter about it is grammar. But mostly, she's - there's - it's that open line of communication, knowing that she - we know that she knows that we know that she has a Facebook profile, and she knows that we're looking at it. And she knows that we're doing that to keep her safe. So, I mean, there have been moments when she has posted something where I've text messaged her or, you know, get - sent her a private message on Facebook and said, hey, that's kind of pushing it a little bit. You might want to take that down, kind of thing. But, you know, there's never been any huge issue as long as, you know, that communication has been open for us.
CONAN: And how long do you plan to keep monitoring her?
JOHN: Oh, well, I mean, she is my baby sister, so until she dies probably.
BALKAM: Can I just say - also, one of eight kids. I highly admire your approach. The best thing is that you're not - and your parents are not overreacting to this issue. I think that the kind of panics that we've had over Facebook and Myspace before - remember, Myspace? I mean, we were all up in arms about that. It's best not to overreact. And we offer a family safety contract that you can download from a our site. And it actually gives you some cyber do's and don'ts for both the kids and the parents, including the notion of sanctions if the kid oversteps the mark, and taking those privileges away. But I really admire you're approach.
JOHN: Yeah. And the nice thing about it is my sister has, you know, seven brothers and sisters to look up and, I mean, we've all already made those mistakes and, you know, so, I mean, she - she's pretty conservative about what she posts. She's aware that, you know - and I don't think there's a motivation for her to keep information off there is that we're hovering. I think that it's because the communication has made her aware that we're - that there are things that she is posting on there that she maybe doesn't think about, but other people that have a little bit more of a predatory personality are looking at it a little bit more closely.
So she understands that it's to keep her safe and it's because we love her, not that, you know, she doesn't think that we're hovering over her, watching her every move. So it's mostly - I would say, it's about the communication, making sure that all parties are comfortable and have their battle lines clearly drawn.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
BALKAM: Continued good luck.
JOHN: Yes, thanks.
CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Balkam, chief executive and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute about his piece, "Allowing Tweens on Facebook: There's Much to Like." You can get a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Rachel: Beyond the safety issue, tweens and teens might begin to experience the loneliness and other not-part-of-the-in or active-crowd emotions that can come from social media. As a 30-something, I stay off Facebook for this reason. So there's a lot of issues involved.
BALKAM: Well, I don't think Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and the rest are for everybody, and I also don't think they're for all kids either. I think that - but I do believe that it should be up to families to decide when and if their kids go online, and our hope is that the social media sites, including Facebook, will accommodate them in a way that is, by the way, accommodates COPPA, the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, which is - states that for anyone under 13, there has to be parental consent. That's why we're discussing this 13 age limit.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Joe, Joe with us from Grand Rapids.
JOE: Yeah. I have a 13-year-old daughter that - she actually opted out of Facebook. Her mom and I were kind of early adopters. We're late 30-somethings, and we've used Facebook and enjoyed it for its perks. And, yeah, you know, we let our daughter sign up a little bit early so she can talk to her friends and everything. But after about six months, she decided that, you know, it really wasn't for her from the perspective of the kind of mean-girl capacity. There's - bullyism means a lot for, you know, a lot of different reasons. She is a well-liked kid, your average, kind of, middle-of-the-road and she's not on the fringes in any way.
But she just found that - the way she described it was it was really easy for her friends of friends that she didn't really know the hide behind the screen and say mean, catty things and she just - it wasn't worth it for her anymore. She also - I think she got weirded out a little bit when I explained to her how the advertising worked and she - when I told her when things come up on the site, it was in relation to things that she said she liked. And we had a discussion about, you know, how they're tracking her movements. So it was a good learning opportunity for her to find out, you know, kind of what the Internet is and isn't about, and she just said that it wasn't for her.
CONAN: Yeah, Christine has sent us this email from Salem, Oregon more to the point: What about cyberbullies? And clearly, that has to be a concern.
BALKAM: Oh, absolutely. And by the way, there's bullying offline, in playgrounds and in classrooms and online on social networks, and you can cyberbully via texting and email. One interesting thing about cyberbullying online, though, of course, is that you can actually record the trail, which you can't normally do just with verbal bullying. But sure, again, I would say it is not for everyone, and not every kid wants to put themselves out there. I just feel that if there is a desire for families and for kids to go online, let's get them on in a safer way as possible. And when troubles arise, which they do, use the reporting button.
Facebook has an extremely powerful reporting button. YouTube has, many of the sites now do. Let's make sure that we are good digital citizens and report when bad things happen. And by the way, this goes for the parents and the adults, too, because sometimes we adults don't model very good cyber behavior, and the kids sometimes just copy what we're doing.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: And here's a tweet from Craig Kormeer(ph): I have a 9-year-old. He has friends on Facebook, but he is not allowed too much opportunity for exposure to pictures or information he doesn't need to know at 9. But he's still learning real life social skills at 9. We don't need to muddy the water with virtual life. And, of course, that is a valid option as well, the parents say, wait a couple years.
BALKAM: Of course, of course. And I wouldn't - I will be the last person to say, you must have your child on social networking. That's nonsense. It's really about making choices about the child's development, about their sociability or not. And if they are coming to you pleading to go on, well, then you can sit down with them and have a good conversation, sign the family safety contract with them, and then, like with training wheels or the shallow end of a swimming pool, go in there with them. Get wet yourself, if you will, until they're ready to swim on their own.
CONAN: Stephen Balkam, thanks very for your time.
BALKAM: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Stephen Balkam, chief executive and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Again, there's a link to his Washington Post piece, "Allowing Tweens on Facebook: There's Much to Like." Go to our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, the new debate over single mothers and what to do now. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.