Normal people talk about normal things on their way to drop their child at nursery. But not me. I’m talking social media. As we pull into the grounds, my wife asks me: “So, at what age would you let [our daughter] use social media?”
The debate had sprung from today’s news that facebook is unveiling new privacy options , and there’s speculation (denied by facebook) that it is paving the way for their desired change, allowing under 13s to use facebook.
This isn’t the first time the debate has come up; in fact, it arose just last week when it was revealed that facebook ban 20,000 young people every day because they are under 13. What’s more concerning is that that amounts to less than 1% of the 7.5million under 13s that register every day.
As a result of the debate, I raised the issue as a question on my own facebook page and had a mixed response. It was clear that the majority of parents with under 16s on facebook had a policy of having access to passwords or adding their children as friends. Of course, the latter is fairly meaningless. The privacy options mean that any enterprising social media user can easily hide comments they don’t want their parents to see. One debater wrote that a banning his under 13 daughter using facebook would have resulted in tensions in the household – and of course, we all know that the problem then slips under the radar and children just do it anyway.
Interestingly, there was some discussion around not checking up on children or young people who were trusted to be sensible with online content. In other words, children who were digitally literate. My colleague, Deborah Judah, wrote a blog post about this very thing, arguing that we should teach our children to gauge what information to put online. I think she’s right. So do academics. Professor Brendesha M. Tynes, from the University of Illinois, completed a study that found that many children who were isolated used social sites as a means of getting support they couldn’t elsewhere. I spoke to Prof. Tynes via email some time ago, and she was firmly of the opinion that blocking social media use was not the way forward. It’s not just in the USA that studies indicate this trend. A recent study by Prof Sonia Livingstone at LSE discovered similar results in European Children. You can see the interview I did at work with Prof Livingstone as part of the video I’ve included in my “Safety…that’s the plan” post.
I still have concerns, however. Not, interestingly enough, about under 13s being on facebook, but about digital maturity or, as I will call it, safety literacy. I know far too many people who are considerably over 13 who post stuff that is dangerous for them or, worse still, others on their facebook profiles. How can we expect parents who are not safety literate to teach their children? The answer, as always, is teachers.
As part of my day job, I help colleges and other FE & Skills providers carry out safety audits. I recently asked a group of senior managers at one college how many of them had a social media account of some kind. Stunningly, the majority said they didn’t. The UK average, amongst people with an internet connection, is 66% of users having a facebook account, let alone the other type of network, so teachers are falling behind. Several senior people in education, community development and local government have told me they do not and never will use facebook. How, in a world where this is the attitude, can we expect teachers to be teaching safety literacy?
So, we’re left in a world where no one is able to teach safety literacy, where young people want to use social networking, but there is no guidance make the choices about what to put online. There’s a lot to be said for self policing, but young people, unaware of their own digital and professional mortality, may simply not realise what could potentially be dangerous. In that world, would it not make sense to limit the age that young people can go on facebook? This is suggested by Michael G who, in a blog post linked to from Deborah Judah’s writes: “While we try to empower our kids to act responsibly at all times, reality suggests that the message doesn’t always filter through”. I see his point, I really do. But no, I don’t think an age limit is the answer.
There was an argument in community development that when residents moaned about young people or, more worryingly, people of other races, hanging around the shops the solution was not to move them on – it was to work on the attitudes of residents. Well, the same is true here.
It is time that people in public service, in particular teachers, woke up to social media and started to look at safety seriously. To not do so is, at best, irresponsible. That way, we can start to build a more safety literate society.
That’s why, this morning, as we got our daughter out the car, after a moment of thought, I answered: “I’d let her use facebook as soon as I thought she was mature enough to know how to use it safely. Whether that’s aged 5 or aged 15.”