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Why not let kids have Facebook pages?

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
updated 12:39 PM EDT, Thu June 7, 2012
Facebook might change its policy and allow preteens to have their own Facebook pages -- 7.5 million already do.
Facebook might change its policy and allow preteens to have their own Facebook pages -- 7.5 million already do.
  • Facebook is considering changing rule to allow preteens to have their own pages
  • Laura Stepp: 7.5 million preteens are already on Facebook, 5 million under 10
  • Children's pages could be linked through their parents' pages, she says, allowing supervision
  • Stepp: Letting your child have a Facebook page is a chance to teach safe online behavior

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence." She is a consultant to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

(CNN) -- Will elementary and middle school students soon be able to put up their own Facebook pages? It looks like it.

According to news accounts, Facebook is considering doing away with its rule that no one under age 13 may have a Facebook page. Cranky math instructors and tyrannical P.E. coaches must be at least a tad nervous at the thought of what the little darlings might post about them. But the change could be a good thing if it encourages a reasonable amount of parent involvement.

The things the rest of us do on Facebook -- reveal what we had for lunch, post way too many photos of our kids and pets, comment on what Queen Elizabeth wore for her 60th anniversary jubilee -- are considered too dangerous for 10-, 11-, or 12-year-olds to do, even if their "public" consists only of people they've invited to be their friends.

One result is that millions of pre-teens -- 7.5 million, according to a Consumer Reports account last year -- have established profiles on Facebook, some using fictitious names. Five million of them are younger than 10. What's most disturbing is that in many cases, parents have helped their kids circumvent the rules. What, pray tell, does that teach their children?

Laura Stepp
Laura Stepp

The parameters of the policy under consideration at Facebook are undetermined but would work something like PG-13 movies. One idea is that the child's page would be linked through the parent's page -- a sidecar, if you will. Savvy parents would give their children as much privacy as possible even if wincing sometimes at what they saw. But they'd also have the opportunity to step in if they noticed something that was hurtful, dangerous or inappropriate.

Schools of thought: My kids won't be on Facebook anytime soon

Despite what some adults might think or read, teens, at least by their own account, are pretty responsible when it comes to social networking. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, more than 7 out of 10 teens say that other teens with whom they're online are kind, not mean.

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Of course, they've seen instances of cruelty. But let's not forget they see that in school, too; in fact, according to what they told Pew, most of the bullying they see or experience happens in person. Only 15% say they've been victims of online cruelty -- interestingly, the same proportion of adults who report being hurt by other adults.

According to Pew, teens are receiving lots of counsel about Internet safety and responsible behavior. Amanda Lenhart, who directs Pew Internet's research on teens, children and families, was struck by how many different advisers there were.

Kids on Facebook? Some people think otherwise

"Teens average five sources from which they receive advice about online safety and responsibility," she said. Parents give the most, followed by teachers, the media, siblings or cousins, friends and older relatives.

Pew also found evidence that many parents and other adults are monitoring teens' online profiles. "The village is active," Lenhart says.

That's on behalf of teenagers. Just think how much guidance the under-13 set would receive.

Some people will find it hard to believe Pew's findings. We don't hear or read much about what adults are doing to ensure, as much as possible, the safety of children and young people who go online.

What we do hear about, particularly from companies that want to sell certain kinds of software to protect users, is the cruelty and misbehavior that the Internet makes possible.   Certainly, one can buy commercial software that can, for example, track a child's texts, block texting altogether and monitor a child's location. But such software should be a last resort. A better first step is to share questionable online experiences with our preteens on sites like Facebook, in order that they learn how to handle such situations on their own.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.

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