A fourth-grader's parents prohibited her from making a Facebook page, so she circumvented their rules and created her own social network.
Her mother, who is protective of her kids' privacy and didn't want their names used, was shocked when her daughter asked them to join a knock-off "Facebook." They had recently given her an iPhone with limited functions. The 9-year-old made a template of her own profile page in the Notes app, uploaded photos on it and invited her parents and sister to join and comment.
But wait, it gets better.
The grade-school sisters realized a four-person social media universe can quickly get dull. So, they invented characters who also commented on their updates. When one of the characters got a little snippy, their mom intervened with a reminder on how to be nice online.
She showed me their fake Facebook on her phone, and I thought it was ingenious. We marveled at how much her young daughters had absorbed about how social media works without any real exposure to it. Sharing thoughts, photos and experiences and getting "likes" are embedded parts of the culture. Even if you think you are raising a tech-sheltered child, they know more than you think at a younger age than you might prefer.
Media literacy educator Diana Graber says many adults approach the vexing issue of kids and tech from a limited perspective -- mostly based in fear. It's understandable that parents worry about the risks technology exposes our children to -- from cognitive, social and emotional impacts to personal safety concerns. Graber is often asked, "What's the right age for my kid to get a cellphone?" In her new book, "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship With Technology," she provides a list of questions for parents to consider about their child before handing over such a powerful device. Children should know how to manage their online reputation, think critically about the information they will encounter, and make safe and healthy relationships. Plus, they should be able to unplug from their devices when needed and know how to manage their privacy. That's a lot to expect from a tween whose brain still has years to develop and mature.
Graber stays away from offering a specific age, especially since every family circumstance is different. Her response is, "Are you comfortable that your child has these skills?" It's also important that parents understand the stakes involved. Her book addresses all the potential pitfalls that make parents anxious about children's tech use. But just as important, she offers a way to discuss and encourage the possibilities for all the good things happening online. Children are drawn to communicate with their peers, and this is how the majority of their generation communicates.
"They have to participate," she said. "They can't just hide out."
Graber describes possible digital on-ramps at different ages to help bring kids up to speed. When children explore online unguided, they are getting indoctrinated to norms you may not want them to have so young, she said.
One of her most helpful suggestions is to teach children the value in producing meaningful content rather than just consuming it. She has been engaging students in weekly lessons on cyber civics for the entire three-year duration of middle school. Each lesson builds upon the concepts and skills from previous years. They tackle real-life scenarios rather than just hearing lectures designed to scare them. It's an approach and curriculum more schools should adopt.
It takes those three years to revisit some of the same concepts in a more nuanced way. "Hopefully after three years, they get it," Graber said. "If we educate a whole generation, everything will change."
Part of the challenge for adults is keeping up with how rapidly technology evolves. In less than half a generation, the demographics of where I discovered social networking have flipped.
I told my teenage daughter that when I first created a Facebook account a decade ago, my youngest brother, then in his late teens, informed me that Facebook was for college students and old people didn't belong on it.
"That's funny," she laughed. "Now Facebook is just for old people."