Guest blogger Maggie Vink: We've all had that "Huh?" moment when someone we don't know tries to friend us on Facebook. But I was surprised when I received a friend request from one of my son's classmates. He was too young to use Facebook according to the rules and, when I clicked over and saw his page, it was clear that he was definitely too young to understand what it means to be safe online. While "Facebook security" is a bit of an oxymoron, I personally employ as many of their security features as possible -- nobody but my friends sees my photos or status updates. Beyond that, I never put anything out there that I wouldn't want on the Internet -- no phone number, no address, nothing too personal.
My son's schoolmate's page, on the other hand, was wide open to the world and was way too informative. He was publicizing his phone number, had photos of his friends posted and tagged and he repeatedly left statuses about being home alone and other places he was going to be. Worse yet, some comments left by other kids were shocking. While the majority were goofy, age-appropriate comments, others were crude, sexualized or downright mean. Right then and there, I was glad of my decision not to allow my son to use any social-media tools.
While I would ensure that anything my son used was as private as possible, I have no control over what other kids might write on his page, nor could I keep close track of everything he wrote on other kids' pages. Though my son is now 13 and technically old enough to use tools like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter or MySpace, I know he's not mature enough to handle the responsibility. What's more, my son doesn't have a cell phone, so there's no texting, and while he has his own e-mail address, his e-mail is delivered to my in-box, so he has no e-mail privacy.
My son is a good kid with a kind heart, but he has one issue that many kids his age share: He's more of a follower than a leader. If he saw others engaging in cyberbullying, he might tell me about it. But odds are, he would just keep quiet -- not doing anything to stop the bullies and not doing anything to help the bullied. Though I hate to admit it, there's even a small chance that my son might join in with mean comments. On more than one occasion, I've seen my son do things completely out of character for him just because the "cool kids" were doing it.
My son has enough social issues to deal with while playing with friends or walking the hallways in school. He doesn't need the added pressure of social media. What's more, not allowing him to use those tools completely removes the possibility of anyone leaving mean comments for him online. I've been writing online for years, so I well know what ugliness the Internet's cloak of anonymity can bring out in people. Kids can be mean enough face-to-face. I see no reason for my son to be exposed to how mean kids can be online.
The day will come when my son is older, more responsible and hopefully ready to handle whatever comes his way online. But for now, his friendships remain unplugged.