By Heather Chapman, Special to CNN
(CNN) – In a move that has disaster written all over it, Facebook is exploring the idea of allowing children under the age of 13 to have accounts, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. It seems no coincidence that they're trying to drum up new users right after a disappointing IPO, and the fact that those users are children is a bonus. Youngsters are more likely to be early adopters of new social media sites, so familiarizing them with Facebook good and early is a master marketing coup.
Of course, many kids are already on Facebook - some 7.5 million tweens, according to a 2011 Consumer Reports survey - so this move is also an attempt to placate worried parents with stepped-up safety features and parent-linked accounts.
I appreciate that, but I still don't want my kids on Facebook yet. My 8-year-old son has begged for an account so he can play Farmville and write messages to friends, but I've remained steadfast: No Facebook till he's 13 and trustworthy.
Facebook can be a great way to connect with friends and far-flung relatives, but for now, he'll just have to visit or pick up the phone. It'll be good for him to practice interpersonal skills like observing body language and taking turns in conversation. And I would way rather he play games at the playground instead of sitting in front of Bejeweled Blitz all day while his muscles wither away.
Speaking of playgrounds: Facebook is mine. I connect with adult friends on there, and sometimes we say things that aren't appropriate for kids. I don't want my son to see my name tagged in a picture that says “It's wine o' clock somewhere!” and I wonder how much of a barrier I could put between my account and his if they're linked.
I'm also concerned that cyberbullying will become a bigger problem than it already is. Bullying peaks in late elementary and early middle school, and I have no doubt that inventive tweens will find ways to get around parent controls to talk smack about each other online. Supposedly, the parent-linked accounts will prevent that, but I'm betting that the kids most likely to bully are going to be the very ones who lack appropriate supervision.
Lack of supervision can breed even darker scenarios, too: Millions of kids bopping around on Facebook would be more than any pedophile could dare dream. Unless Facebook allows for stringent control of friend lists, private message settings and picture tagging - and parents take them time to monitor those settings - children could be ripe for the picking.
Some exceptionally mature children will be able to handle themselves just fine online, but kids in general just aren't web-savvy enough to discern who is safe to talk to online and who isn't. They're also not experienced enough to keep away from virus apps and pop-up ads.
I allowed my son to play a browser-based game the other day. I was right next to him, but it wasn't five minutes before he squealed that he would win a million dollars if he could click on the dancing coin. I managed to grab his hand before he did it and lecture him about deceptive ads and viruses, but what if I hadn't been right there?
There are only so many teachable moments I'm willing to finance with a de-virusing visit to the Geek Squad.
I'm not the only one concerned. Members of the Congressional Privacy Caucus sent an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, according to Broadcasting & Cable, in which they sought specifics about how Facebook will comply with Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and otherwise keep tween users safe.
It's an excellent letter, and I'll be waiting eagerly to read Facebook's response. In the meantime, if my son wants to play Farmville, he can go outside and feed the actual chickens in our backyard - and maybe bring a friend.
The opinions expressed are solely those of Heather Chapman.
Share in the comments: Will your younger-than-13 kids be on Facebook? Why or why not? How did you make the decision, and how do you explain it to them? Or, take our poll: Should kids younger than 13 be allowed on Facebook?