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Kern-Rugile: Facebook's dangers for tweens

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Jenna Kern-Rugile lives in East Northport.

Last week, Consumer Reports released a study showing that of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million were younger than 13 -- with more than 5 million of those just 10 or younger. The study also said that their accounts were "largely unsupervised" by their parents.

It's a phenomenon that hasn't escaped our local educators. As the guidance counselor at East Northport Middle School recently told a group of touring parents, "If your son or daughter is on Facebook, get them off."

Facebook has a clearly unenforceable policy that users be at least 13, but many parents I know allow their 12-and-under offspring to maintain pages. Their logic: My kids are very responsible; I've taught them safe online behavior and monitor their postings; I know their friends and have their password; and if I make it "forbidden fruit," it will be even more tempting.

Regardless, when children -- and make no mistake, tweens are still children -- use Facebook, they expose not only themselves but also their family and friends to numerous risks. Identity theft and viruses are obvious dangers. Predators are another: According to i-Safe.org, 20 percent of high school students and 19 percent of middle school students surveyed admitted to meeting face to face with someone they knew only from the Internet.

But the more prevalent threat is cyberbullying. In i-Safe's study of fourth- through eighth-graders, 42 percent said they've been bullied while online, while 35 percent have been threatened.

But plain old meanness has almost certainly affected a far larger percentage. As New Jersey middle school principal Anthony Orsini explained in an April 2010 interview on "Good Morning America," it's not uncommon for kids to start a Facebook page named something like "Dave is Ugly," and hundreds of classmates join in.

Once that kind of damage is done to a child, Orsini said, it's impossible to make it disappear. Orsini sent this email to the parents in his school: "The threat to your son or daughter from online adult predators is insignificant compared to the damage that children at this age constantly and repeatedly do to one another through social networking sites."

Of course, bullying is nothing new. Teens back in the caveman days probably used their primitive tools to carve unflattering portraits of their Neanderthal peers. But social networking sites, along with cellphones and other tech tools, have raised the stakes to a whole new level. We've all read about suicides that resulted, at least in part, from a campaign of cyberbullying. True, most were older than 13, but that just reveals that the risks don't magically disappear after puberty.

Clearly, parents need to closely monitor their kids' Facebook use, even after the so-called acceptable age of 13. Several software programs can help, and old-fashioned supervision is essential. But there's no fail-safe method. After all, adults do some pretty foolish things on Facebook, too.

But young people are far more likely to post information that could lead to trouble. Plus, saying nasty things is so much easier online than face to face. Even if your kid is one of the "nice ones" (aren't they all?), principal Orsini was right when he told parents, "There is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None. . . . They are simply not psychologically ready for the damage that one mean person online can cause."

It's challenging enough to protect our teens from the pain caused by cyberbullying. There's simply no good reason to expose preteens to the nightmarish aspects of social networks that await them just around the corner in high school.

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