At Play in Facebook's New Sandbox

Facebook is a business, but it is also an information broker. When taken in that context, engaging younger members in a controlled and rational manner makes sense.
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"The Kids Are Alright," but what about the rest of us?

Too often in recent weeks, the media has referred to Facebook as an IPO and a busted investment opportunity. That is unfortunate, because it distracts us from the real importance of Mark Zuckerberg's creation: It is a juggernaut of social innovation and change which forces us to look at our relationships in a different way.

On June 4, it was revealed that Facebook was developing systems that would allow children under the age of 13 to access the site with the permission and supervision of their parents. The reaction was the usual outpouring of concern over some well-worn issues: the potential for exposure to information that would not be age-appropriate; the nature of contact that would take place within the social networks; the revealing of information within a profile that would potentially expose younger children to predators, and the like.

As someone who follows social media for a living, I was not surprised or shocked or offended by any of this news. Facebook is a business, to be sure, but it is also an information broker and virtual coffee house. When taken in that context, the strategy of engaging younger members in a controlled and rational manner seemed to make sense on several levels.

On the first level, Facebook is saying that a number of kids were operating on the site who had simply lied about their age and set up profiles, however false. Many of them did so with the advice and consent of their parents, who purported to monitor their online behavior closely. Fair enough, but I am also sure there are plenty of parents who are unaware of what their kids are doing on Facebook and this new strategy is aimed squarely at them. I have to give credit to Facebook for a willingness to acknowledge a situation that needs fixing and taking steps to resolve it, even if some parents are embarrassed or inconvenienced in the process.

On another level, Facebook is doing something very smart by developing a new and willing audience for its advertisements. This strategy is neither shocking nor unfamiliar. Years ago, television networks created a special environment for children and called it "Saturday morning." It was a platform within a platform, a day and time reserved for special content that operated under strict, if somewhat unspoken, rules that parents could plop a child in front of a screen and be reasonably assured that the tykes would be engaged and entertained in predictable ways that would not shock, offend or result in embarrassing questions about sex.

So my thinking on Facebook's new ploy is influenced by a certain confidence that Facebook has learned from the history of other media and will tailor its offerings for children accordingly. It stands to reason that Facebook will deploy considerable resources to set up a separate virtual area for pre-teens that will be restricted and safe within a set of parameters. I expect that there will be a firewall of sorts that will segregate the kids from adults. I would also expect that this area will come with a set of instructions for parents and children that will provide guidelines on how to engage, what sort of information to reveal and when to report a concern. These guidelines, I am sure, will evolve over time and be tempered by lessons learned in the process.
Still, I must confess that I do have a concern as a parent. The rational, social critic in me knows that this is part of a natural, if somewhat disruptive, evolutionary force that, like history, propels us forward. There is a certain inevitability about this new Facebook sandbox for kids, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

But parents are already called upon to engage and instruct their children on so many issues and in so many places that it is nearly impossible to do it all on a 24/7 basis. Gone are the days when only we had to worry about what our kids saw on broadcast TV. Today, there are information sources that convey information and emotion that are beyond our control -- the Internet, cable, video game consoles, smart phones and more. Parents are forced to edit and confront a flow of information from a virtual fire hose. It never ends and the force of it can be intimidating. The new Facebook for pre-teens will be another responsibility. Where shall we, as parents, find the time to monitor, explain and interpret the world as it exists in real-time?

In the end, though, I think we will survive the new Facebook and its underage inhabitants. Call me naïve, but I happen to believe that Facebook is not operated by dummies or miscreants. Mark Zuckerberg and his crew must be aware of the enormous opportunity that they have to advance the lives of their youngest members, and they must feel the burden of equally profound responsibilities that are being thrust upon them.

Just as it happened years ago with the introduction of television and the controversies over inappropriate content, we will find the time and the energy to get through this together. The kids will prove to be very adaptive and smart, and they will surprise us in a good way. Facebook will be looking for our help and our input. After all, Mark Zuckerberg is not a parent -- not yet, anyway -- and he will be looking to the parents for guidance. Years from now, we will wonder what all the fuss was about.

"The kids are alright," the song says. And they will be alright in the future.

So will the rest of us.