However, the way I use Facebook is a bit different than they way my kid's do, and plenty of kids are getting addicted beyond reason, using it for brutal cyber bullying or daring to say the types of things they would never dream of in person. Kid's depression rates are sky high, average onset at age 14, and there have been many reports of teen suicide from internet related bullying.
For over 25 million youth, Facebook is replacing email as "the" way to communicate, and parents are often left in the dust and wondering is it safe? What age can kids safely have a Facebook page? Should they insist to be their "Friend" and monitor their endless chatter?
Jill is a mother of three children ages 10-14, who are fully into the digital generation. All have iPods, computers, Wii games, cell phones, and are addicted to Facebook. They are like most middle school aged kids in America today who have their hands on toys most adults only recently acquired themselves.
One day, a call came from the principal informing Jill and her husband, their middle daughter was being given in-school suspension for creating a Facebook group used to make fun of another student. Called something like, "Eric is a Hairy Beast," the group quickly filled with loads of kids making fun of a quiet Armenian boy, uploading cell phone pictures of him and becoming more brazen by the day.
These kids are "A" students, and far from brats; but most are not cognitively developed enough to recognize their behavior is hurtful to others. According to Lisa Ott, the Youth Empowerment Coordinator at the Women and Family Life Center, this is on target with research in adolescent brain development.
Kids get into trouble with sites like Facebook and MySpace because they are too self-centered in their overall development to understand the impact of what they are doing, she said. Middle school age children are the most susceptible to cyber bullying, and high school students most likely to use poor judgment in giving out information.
Dr. Jay Giedd is the chief of brain imaging in the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, and an expert in adolescent brain development. His research shows the brain is not fully developed at age 12 as was believed, but reaches full maturity in our mid-twenties. Adolescence is a time of profound brain development, surpassing that of toddlers. The area of the pre-frontal cortex develops last, which is in charge of higher reasoning and understanding consequences. The emotional centers of the brain that control happiness, fear, anger and sadness often over-compensate, and can be 50% stronger during adolescence.
I set about interviewing scores of parents with children from elementary to high school, asking their opinions about Facebook and kids. While most felt it was a relatively safe place for kids to connect to each other, many expressed concern over the obsessive nature of these sites. Designed to be "sticky;" a site is deemed successful the longer it entices you to stay on, yet these hours are replacing other activities critical for healthy development.
A child's brain reaches its full size at age six and the gray matter is actually the thickest around age 12. Remember how the world was full of possibilities at that age? Because it truly is. After this stage, the brain begins to prune back gray matter and the phrase "use it or lose it" becomes key as certain brain cells die forever. The skills your child learns during adolescence; like sports, dancing, music or academics become hard wired. Other skills that are not being used will fall away.
What's a parent to do?
1) Be Involved - Kids will always be ahead of us in technology, so encourage them to show you how to set up a social networking page. This encourages them to share what they know and gives you access to what they are doing.
2) Be a Parent, not a Pal - Insist on knowing user names and passwords of all their social networking accounts. Explain to them it is not to be used to spy, but to have in case they were in some sort of danger.
3) Create a Balance- We want our kids to develop their own identity and become independent. Learn to trust them and allow opportunities for them to explore when it is age appropriate and set clear limits for internet use.
Most kid's today don't have a local bowling alley or soda shop to hang out, like the baby boomer generations had. They also aren't allowed to play outside until the street lights come on as recent generations enjoyed. Hours of skipping rope, climbing trees and building forts is replaced with the tap tapping of tiny keyboards. The cyber playground has replaced the physical one, for better or worse. It is our job as parents to make sure their developing brains know how to do more than move a mouse around a keyboard and encourage more face to face social time.
Peggy Orenstein, author of Growing Up Daisy recently wrote about "Growing Up on Facebook" in the New York Times. She notes most kids now going to college have been 'facebooking' since middle school, and wonders how our youth will be able to take the important steps of "reinventing themselves" with "450 friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self?"