June 8, 2012

Stephen Balkam is chief executive and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from Internet companies, among others. FOSI’s members include Facebook.

Some parent groups are up in arms over proposals to allow tweens on Facebook . The concern is misguided.

Recently we’ve heard a lot of discussion about whether social networks, such as Facebook, should allowchildren younger than 13 on their sites. Well, the kids are already there. Instead, the discussion should be about how best to protect them.

This is not about Facebook’s recent IPO . Nor is it a greedy grab by a social network trying to hook our kids into its growing platform. This has been an ongoing conversation within the company for more than a year, one that executives there are attempting to solve responsibly. I should know: As a member of Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board, I (along with others on the board) have raised this issue several times with senior members of the company.

Allowing kids on Facebook — with their parents’ involvement and consent — is the right thing to do. An estimated 7.5 million children under the age of 13 are already using social networks. They are lying about their age and sometimes doing so with their parents’ encouragement. Often, children who have parents serving overseas in the military or grandparents in faraway states see social media as a chance to share photographs and life experiences.

Kids’ first interactions with the Internet and social media should not include deception. Facebook already provides increased privacy protections for children between the ages of 13 and 17, but in their haste to use the service, many teens lie about their age, missing out on existing safeguards. We don’t want to teach children to lie to their parents or to the services that they are using, but we also don’t want them to lose out on the chance to connect with others and to learn.

Instead, we should empower parents and children to engage together, to keep them safe and to help them successfully navigate the online world. By signing up for a service together, parents can use the opportunity to teach. They can talk about responsible online behavior, about the people they interact with and about the things they post.

Rather than signing up alone and pretending to be older, a child should work with a parent to set up accounts and discuss online reputation. Kids will then be better prepared for more independence when they reach the age of 13 and have more control over their online lives.

This is an opportunity for a parent to start a dialogue with a child about being a good citizen offline and online. It can also help parents gain a better understanding of what their kids are doing online.

If Facebook and other social networks choose to allow members age 12 and under, two key areas should be part of this “Facebook Junior” experience.

First, the default privacy settings should be friends-only and not be able to be modified.

Second, parents should be able to decide who their children are friends with. We also need a robust debate over advertising to kids online.

In the fall, the Family Online Safety Institute plans to launch a Web site called “A Platform for Good,” which will foster a dialogue between parents, teachers and youth about good digital citizenship and showcase the positive uses of technology and social media. Rather than leaving younger kids behind out of fear, we can work to empower parents and let kids have safe and positive experiences.