The social media dilemma: With a child, how old is old enough?

The social media dilemma: With a child, how old is old enough?
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Facebook recently launched a messaging app called Messenger Kids, and some of the same groups attacking the program said that Sesame Street was dangerous, too.

How would I know? For more than 40 years I was part of, then led the team at Sesame Street to ensure that the program’s curriculum reflected best-in-class research on child development. It’s déjà vu all over again.

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The role technology and media should have in the lives of our children is an important debate to have. So when Facebook approached me to ask what they should consider, knowing that children younger than 13 were already actively online, I agreed. I was reminded of the challenges we faced as we expanded Sesame Street’s programming. Like Facebook, we knew that children were being exposed to media at an early age and often, earlier than we would be comfortable with. Accepting this reality is hard, but in both instances the important question to answer was how do you create something formal and intentional for these children?

My advice: Follow the credo taught to med students, “primum non nocere.” Above all, do no harm.

Facebook had done its preliminary homework regarding how to make an online experience safe for a child, and how to make parents more comfortable about allowing their children online. Like the process I managed for Sesame Street, Facebook had embarked on a careful process of testing, parental conversations, and advisory and institutional input, in finding ways to introduce children under the age of 13 to connect with family and friends online, in safe and trustworthy ways, with their parent’s consent and control.

The findings were straightforward. Parents were concerned about three issues. First, inappropriate contact — who their children would be in contact with through Facebook, after all, it’s a dangerous world out there. Second, inappropriate content — these young children might not yet know how to differentiate appropriate from inappropriate materials for their age, or fact from fiction, or fake from real. Wouldn’t it be nice if these kids could remain kids a little longer? And last, they were worried about too much screen time in general: How do we set limits and what is the right balance?

Facebook creators put all that learning into Messenger Kids: an app to be used by kids, but only after their parents set it up and with parental controls. The app has safeguards for contact, such as whom they can friend, and content, giving parents the ability to review content when they want, and time spent online.

Is this parent as Big Brother? Maybe. Or maybe just helping to extend parenting from the real world to the virtual world, a world that children are already involved in at an early age, and that will remain part of their lives as they grow older. And if a parent doesn’t want their child to use Messenger Kids, they just say no.

Facebook didn’t need me to tell them that protection and a safe introduction to the online social world for kids younger than 13 was the mandatory first step. But what about the next step?

To my mind, all media and tech companies, Facebook included, have the responsibility to contribute to trying to fix our damaged world by providing positive models, apps, programs, challenges and opportunities for children to learn, by making joy, creativity and excitement an integral part of learning, and by modeling positive social values.

Facebook can and should help children ask good questions and find multiple ways to seek answers, and discriminate between sources of information. Facebook can help give children a sense of the future and the role they might have in shaping it, as well as a sense of the past, instead of just providing them with a means to emphasize the present. Facebook can help break boundaries, and give children a sense of the world, its places, people, languages, diversity, opportunities and ways to expand their exposure to wisdom, art, science.

My friend Jim Henson once said, “It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.” Our children are engaging with technology. Rather than fear it, let’s improve their introduction.

Dr. Lewis Bernstein was the EVP of Education, Research and Outreach at the Sesame Workshop and formerly the Executive Producer of “Sesame Street.” He holds a Ph.D. in Communications from Columbia University and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Communications.