Moms Talk: When Should Parents Let Their Kids Join the World of Social Networking?

This week, our Tri-Valley Moms Council tackles the topic of when to give children access to social networking and other interactive online forums.

My fifth-grade son has asked me repeatedly over the last three years to expand on his technological privileges.  

We’ve had many discussions in response to his requests for a cell phone, his own computer, an email account, a Facebook profile and the freedom to play socially interactive online games.  My refusal to supply him with these luxuries for reasons such as cost, responsibility and safety concerns seems to have little effect on quieting his desire to venture into the world of networking online and communicating via cell phone.

“I’m the only kid on campus without an email account or cell phone,” he tells me often.

I realize that when he enters middle school next year it probably would be wise to get him a cell phone and open an email account in his name so he can communicate with me and his teachers when needed. However, I’m still uneasy about allowing him to venture into social networking such as Facebook or video games. I worry about cyber bullying and creepy adults who prey on children online. 

At what age is it reasonable to allow a child to explore the world through online networking? What limitations should be set when using socially interactive games and websites such as World of Warcraft and Facebook? How do you ensure the safety of your child when “friending” options are limitless?

Cameron Sullivan: You're doing the right thing. It's called parenting.

Some very close friends and I have oldest children who are in seventh grade and almost 13. None of them has a cell phone yet. But I've even been chastised by friends of my 10-year-old daughters for not allowing my 13-year-old a phone! These little girls are shocked — not to mention out of line in criticizing an adult. But my almost-13-year old really isn't complaining. 

My kids have email accounts with private profiles. If they want to keep their "buzz" capabilities active, they have to be transparent. They know I monitor what they're doing online. Clearing computer history is punishable by several weeks of no tech communication.

Allowing kids to lie by creating a profile with a false age (minimum age for Facebook membership is 13) is a different issue than allowing activity online that, frankly, isn't even appropriate offline. Some of my contacts on Facebook have middle-school kids whose pages are open to friends of friends. I don't have time to waste monitoring other kids' lives online, but on the rare occasions that I venture to their kids' pages, I am grateful for the parents' ignorance. The ability to see what kids are posting online provides a window into the goings-on of some middle-school kids.

I'm a mean mom. Mean moms rock.

Kathleen Schoening: When will we allow our daughter to explore online networking like Facebook? If you ask my husband, he will say “never” because even though he is a software engineer he does not use Facebook. If you ask me, I will tell you I am not sure. 

Facebook has a time and a place, perhaps, in a teenager’s life, but the privacy factor is huge. As a mom of a daughter, I am wary of predators. I am wary of things that happen online and then transition into real life. Yes, I am a little paranoid. I have seen enough to know that even setting limitations can go extremely wrong from bullying to worse.  I, we, are not willing to let our daughter be exposed to such. Time will tell, though.

 As for online games? What happened to old school outside play? Team sports? What about a board game with family or friends? I can count the number of PBS free online games my daughter has been allowed to play on one hand. And yes, the home computer always will stay in the central part of the house for everyone to access and not be hidden in our daughter’s room.

 As for a cell phone, my friends laugh when I say when it is age-appropriate in our house, Emma will get a phone. However, I plan to have all outgoing/incoming phone calls and texts from Emma’s phone emailed to me, and I also plan to (track the phone through) GPS. Emma’s email can be set up a similar way. I think technology can work to a parent’s advantage. No, I may not do this, but the technology is there.

Kari Hulac: Well, as someone who gets paid to practically live online through my job with Patch, I'm clearly the most lenient among this group of moms, though I'm not sure that's where I want to be.

My daughter is under 13, and I did let her join Facebook. (I set up the profile and privacy limits and approve all her "friends," all of whom are immediate relatives or friends I know.) She's in the fourth grade in Pleasanton and several of her classmates have profiles, so I'm not alone in violating Facebook's rules.

In fact, a recent New York Times article confronts the fact that millions of kids under 13 are using the social networking site. (Read a blog about it here.)

It's only been a couple of months, but I'm unsure whether I should let her continue, not because of safety fears but because it is yet another time suck that has to be monitored along with all the other frivolous electronic pastimes (TV, etc.) I'd rather she be running around outside.

The benefits, I suppose, are the social enjoyment she has getting to better know my out-of-state side of the family, including my 87-year-old grandmother.

As for bullying or predators, I'm more worried about these threats lurking out in the real world — at school and elsewhere in public. So I've already started preparing her to face those issues.

She does not have a cell phone, though I could see that being helpful with all the afterschool logistics, and she just recently started calling friends with our landline, along with some long-distance calls to some hotline claiming to be Justin Bieber's manager in Georgia. (Twas a nice jumping off point to introduce the concept of THE TELEPHONE BILL, a portion of which she shall be paying as a result.)

I'm sure our parents had similar qualms about the technology that came out when we were kids. (Oh no, microwave ovens!) It all has its evil side and must be used responsibly.

But all told, I plan to start getting meaner.


Kathleen Schoening March 24, 2011 at 05:31 AM
As I mentioned above, technology can work to a parent’s advantage and should add we parents have responsibility to monitor what our children do on line if they are allowed on Facebook or on line games.
Kathleen Schoening March 24, 2011 at 04:53 PM
I should have added that open communication is the key. We will talk with Emma about the responsibility and risks of technology as she gets older. Talking is the key.
Jaime Roberto March 24, 2011 at 05:47 PM
I'll be the judgemental one who will say that kids don't need cell phones. Sure there may be some good reasons for some kids to have them, but parental paranoia is not one of them. When my son whines that he wants one, I tell him he can have one when he pays for it with his own money. It gives him a goal to work for and ensures that he will be prudent when he finally does get one.
Wendy Smith March 25, 2011 at 06:44 PM
I need to make one comment here and I'm directing this to people contacting me to sell me something. Since this article has published, I have received multiple private emails marketing everything from kid specific phones, to kid safe social networking sites, to computer software to monitor my children. The intention of this article was not to allow myself or the readers become the target of marketing material. Instead it was intended to open up discussion within our community on establishing safe measures for our children when it comes to technology. I invite parents to contribute their thoughts and solutions, including technology they have successfully used to deal with this topic such as K Schmidt's comment above. However, I do not condone "customer hunting" in this or any other Mom's Talk discussion. My husband and I have a rule that we buy nothing, except Girl Scout cookies, from door to door salespeople. This rule extends to my email box as well. Unless you're the 9-year-old daughter of a friend selling Thin Mints, you probably won't hear back from me.
Stephanie Harper May 11, 2011 at 07:52 PM
I am a parent of a child who has a cell phone. Both my husband and I do not get caught up in the social context of when a kid needs a cell phone myth. Every kid is different, every parent is different. Thankfully my kid who is 9, is very responsible and I instill trust in him by having a cell phone for when I need to contact him after school or when we are running late. He walks home and I feel better about him having some way to reach him or vice versa. I am not paranoid, rather I trust my son-A concept most parents do not live by. By giving him a cell phone we are teaching him he can be trusted and have confidence later in making right choices. Some kids may get jealous or wonder why they can't have a phone and to tell you the truth, that is something for their parents to deal with. My son knows when to turn his phone on and off at the appropriate times. he has never gotten in trouble and if he did, we would fully support the consequences of his actions. As far as social networking, he does have a facebook page which we monitor and he plays games and stays in touch with family through a list comprised of people we know. If he should get requests, we always are aware of them. Again, it's the idea of instilling trust in our kids and not patronizing them into wanting to be more responsible. This teaches them independence and also exposes them on some level to technology. Win-win situation.


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