It’s my little boy’s birthday today. He’s 4. I guess if Mark Zuckerberg had his way instead of shouting “wow” at 5.30 this morning when he saw the pile of presents at the end of his bed he’d have been online checking out his birthday greetings on his Facebook Wall, counting the pokes from his nursery school mates and downloading his gifts from an iTunes account.
It’s my little boy’s birthday today. He’s four. I guess if Mark Zuckerberg had his way instead of shouting “Wow!” at 5.30 this morning when he saw the pile of presents at the end of his bed he’d have been online checking out his birthday greetings on his Facebook Wall, counting the pokes from his nursery school mates and downloading his gifts from an iTunes account.
The Facebook King wants the law changed in America to allow under-13 year olds to access the social network, arguing Facebook is an educational resource. The law doesn’t ban under-13s in America but it does place special responsibilities on social networks to seek parental approval and protect privacy, so it is easier for Facebook to ban children than to take the steps that would be required to allow them. In Britain the same age rule is applied by the social network despite there being no legal ban or even regulations.
In truth many children are members of Facebook from about the age of eight. They tend to use the network in a fairly limited way, communicating with a small number of friends, but they use the Facebook login to access online games like Farmville. Any parent with a smartphone or tablet fights a losing battle with young children for custody of the device. As a three year old my boy could happily amuse himself for an hour or so with iPhone games if you let him. My five year old girl knows my password and can download apps from iTunes if you don’t keep an eye on her. And if allowed she will happily play Barbie games on the desktop computer.
At first it is all rather thrilling – you think “My god! my children are geniuses!”. But it soon becomes rather depressing, as they beg for your handset instead of playing with their toys. In my house it took a fairly determined effort to stop them playing with computers and phones, and now they seem delightfully uninterested with even watching telly. I’m not under any illusions that this is anything but a phase, and will pass. In fact I spend so much time on my computer and phone that they have come to slightly resent technology at times as something that takes their parents’ attention away from them. This is a good thing in my book, for now.
I spent my childhood in gardens and fields, on my bike and fishing by the river. I want as much of that for my own children for as a long as possible. They will never grow up technologically disconnected – it is so much a part of their lives that would be impossible. But what I have seen in Facebook and other social networks is that you have to understand what human friendship and interaction is about before you get the best out of online networks. 13 might be a little old as an age bar. But I hope tomorrow’s four-year-olds will still spend their birthday mornings mucking around with plastic toys and pirate costumes, and not Angry Birds 47.