How young is too young for Facebook?
I’ve been thinking about this question because my youngest son, Henry (age 12) asked about getting a Facebook page.
Henry has two older brothers (ages 16 and 17) who are both on Facebook, but I am not inclined to let Henry participate until high school.
So I read with great interest a piece in the New York Times Magazine, which started out: “Last week my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.”
Exactly. Once your child joins Facebook, there is no turning back. When Jonah (17) and Aaron (16) joined Facebook a couple of years ago, I insisted that they “friend” me so that I could spy on them as needed. This meant, of course, that I had to join Facebook too-something I had less than zero desire to do.
Don’t tell my kids, but I hardly ever even look at their Facebook pages: a) I trust them; and b) anytime I have checked on them, the contents have been completely innocent and innocuous. Sure, there’s the occasional mild gripe about a teacher or the scattered use of the “f” word, but nothing that I can really object to.
But when we had a discussion about this issue the other night during dinner, I was surprised that the older boys advised Henry against getting a Facebook page anytime in the near future.
Aaron said, “It’s not good for someone your age. First of all, it’s very distracting and takes up a lot of time. And also, you should learn to have human interactions before you have online interactions.” Jonah agreed that kids Henry’s age haven’t formed good enough relationships in the real world to extend them to the digital one. Shockingly mature and sensible. But I’m not sure Henry was convinced.
Keller makes the point in his article that one of the (unintended, but inarguable) casualties of the relentless forward-march of technology is that kids have lost their capacities for concentration and depth of thought. “Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans,” he writes. “And what little memory we had. . . we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?”
Add this to the list of parental worries (which, in my case, is always irrationally long anyway). Does our recent tendency-to boil everything down to 140 characters, to present self-censored and sanitized versions of ourselves on Facebook, to be constantly multitasking with different technologies beeping for our attention-represent progress or its opposite? Are our kids growing up as the Instant Gratification Generation, lacking the capacity for genuine relationships with other flawed human beings?
Keller puts it this way: “My inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected to something deeper than snark or political affinity.”
He says of social media, “I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely ‘social.’ There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant.”
He suspects that “Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation. . . The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet-complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy-are things that matter.”
So again I ask: progress or its opposite? And as the middle school years are critical developmentally-kids are feeling out concepts of friendship, budding hormones, and other psychosocial aspects of puberty-are they being well-served by plunging them into virtual “friendships” and contrived “communities”?
At least for now, I don’t think so. I am going to resist the virtual pull of Facebook for Henry. I want him to learn how to forge real relationships first. I see it as a win-win: I delay the exposure to what Keller calls crystal meth, and Henry can put off the embarrassment of having to “friend” his own mom.