The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Facebook is developing technology that would allow children younger than 13 years of age to use the site. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has argued that his company's product is vital to young kids' learning.
Last year, he said of the legal restrictions that limit signing up young kids, "That will be a fight we take on at some point," and justified his reasoning through this comment: "My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age." This positioning of Facebook as essential to educating the young is an appealing argument. But is it true?
James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, said in a recent statement that "There is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13." Some high-profile technology writers have countered by suggesting that it's time for young kids to participate in the Facebook phenomenon. Yet as pediatrician Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe disclosed, "the ones pushing this plan are often on the Facebook payroll and have no background in child health and development."
So what does the research say? A 2011 investigation found that kids who checked Facebook while studying had lower grade-point averages than kids who didn't check the social network. Similarly, the "Creating & Connecting" study -- a study actually funded by the media industry -- ultimately acknowledged that 9- to 17-year
This analysis also revealed that these children's top social networking activities turned out to be: posting messages, downloading music and downloading videos. Encouraging young kids to engage in these entertainment-based activities through Facebook membership likely would make it even harder for parents to convince their kids to study math and other subjects necessary to succeed in this global economy.
Brain research reveals what young kids need most are activities that become displaced by digital technologies like Facebook; these include creative play; physical exercise; reading; and real-world interactions with people who care about them.
According to research from Stanford University, 8- to 12-year-old girls who spent more time communicating online were less happy and less socially comfortable than peers who spent less. So what activity then was associated with better social and emotional functioning in these young girls? Face-to-face communication.
Other studies show that kids who spend more time using the Internet for entertainment purposes spend less time with, and are less attached to, their parents, and are also more at risk for cyberbullying when compared to kids who spend less. With younger children already spending 7½ hours a day multitasking between various screen media, do they really need another reason to disappear online?
The suggestion that Facebook will help young children learn is not supported by science, and therefore shifts attention to the company's profit motives. On the heels of its lackluster IPO and unsteady share price, Facebook's move to pursue this untapped resource may seem, at first glance, to make perfect business sense. Facebook users increasingly access the site by phone, but the social network has so far struggled to make money from mobile-ad revenue.
Our increasingly cellphone dependent kids offer a tempting target because their brains' less-developed prefrontal cortices make them more easily swayed by ads. Moreover, because young kids' Facebook accounts would be connected to their parents' accounts, the company could direct ads to moms and dads based on their children's likes and dislikes.
Yet what happens when -- as the research suggests it will -- young kids suffer learning and other problems because they are investing in Facebook rather than studying for school and participating in other developmentally important activities? And too, won't parents grow weary from their children nagging them for products advertised on the site?
Facebook should consider carefully if any short-term boosts to its profits would be worth the damage to its brand. In an industry in which users are fickle and image means so much, putting young children on Facebook may actually turn out to be bad for business.
Richard Freed, Ph.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist specializing in the health effects of technology. He is a Walnut Creek resident and practices in Antioch.