Editorial note: Katherine Adams is a graduate student and graduate program coordinator at The University of Georgia in Athens. Her son, Seth, was born with gastroschisis -- a birth defect in which the child is born with his intestines outside the body. He is about to turn 13.
Since he was a little boy, Seth has participated in UGA Miracle, a student-run philanthropy that raises money for the Comprehensive Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit (CIRU) at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
It started simple enough. The initial idea behind Seth’s Facebook profile was so that I could invite our UGA Miracle friends to his soccer games. Each week a new batch of college students would be on the sidelines cheering on my son. Then it became holiday performances, ice cream socials, or a fundraiser for CHOA. This community of support built around my son because of his Facebook profile -- and he was only six years old.
I created his Facebook profile the same way some people create family blogs: To inform our friends of his life, and, honestly, to motivate students to get involved with UGA Miracle. There was a connectivity about his Facebook page that allowed us to communicate with a large group of people easily. I don’t have family in Georgia, so Facebook has always been our connection to each other, and my son has been able to feel closer to his aunts, uncles and cousins as a result.
He has friends on Facebook who have provided him a glimpse into other countries or cultures; he’s also remained friends with students long after they graduated and started lives and careers I was proud to have him follow.
It is in this vein that I believe Facebook, as Mark Zuckerberg said at the New Schools Summit, can be utilized as an educational resource. I can imagine my son’s social studies teacher having a Facebook page for her class that would include assignments, links to educational clips, and the opportunity for out-of-the-classroom activities.
When it came time to turn the Facebook profile and password over to him as he entered middle school, we went through the privacy settings together. Through our open dialogue, we decided he could independently make smart decisions about how to deal with inappropriate content, and that in return I promised not to post naked baby pictures or write embarrassing mom comments.
I have never had concerns with Seth controlling his account, nor the process of turning it over to him. That’s not to say there weren’t challenges that we knew had to be addressed.
One of the hardest conversations I had to have with my son was about cyberbullying and online communication etiquette. These concepts didn’t exist when I was growing up, and I had no clue how to kickstart the conversation. I did not want to scare him away from enjoying the connectivity Facebook can provide, but I do believe I used the word “predator” to reinforce that there are serious issues that unfortunately can arise.
Having had a Facebook profile for almost seven years now, he has a historical and pictorial record of his life, his adventures, his family and friends’ motivational comments, and snarky pop culture links. I believe that having had access to it for such an extended period of time has desensitized him to the negative experiences that I imagine a 13-year-old would overload himself with after having had to wait to join Facebook.
When I hear that parents are outraged that Facebook may be lowering their permissive age, I wonder: What are they so fearful of their kids being exposed to that they wouldn’t incur through other non-age-restricted Internet sites, like YouTube or interactive chat-enabled games? Is it Facebook or is it simply the exposure to the Internet that they’re really concerned with?
Compare using Facebook under parental controls to riding a bike for the first time: It’s an exercise in self-independence, with parents warning children about strangers and the perils that could occur when cruising alone. Knowing how to use Facebook at an early age can help our children learn how to navigate the Internet to learn about our world, much like a bike-ride exploration of their neighborhood.