Sherry Turkle Says Younger Kids Can't Handle Facebook Because Teens Fret About Looking Cool Online

from the oh-the-unprecedented-horror! dept

There have been many different definitions of “childhood” in history. Often, it meant “a series of fevered illnesses preceding a constant fight for survival,” or if you were lucky, “a brief period of unpaid labor in preparation for a life of poorly-paid labor.” The nominal modern notion of an extended formative stage of life, and the fact that it’s actually possible for some people, seems like quite the accomplishment in that light—but it’s noteworthy that, on the whole, every generation of children has managed to muddle through somehow, adjusting society’s norms and standards as it goes. And the culmination of all that change is modern humanity: still far from perfect, but no more or less fundamentally flawed or fundamentally gifted than we ever were.

So how likely is it that Facebook is going to be the thing that finally ruins children forever? Well, according to Sherry Turkle in a recent interview with TechCrunch’s Greg Ferenstein, it’s a very serious concern—so serious, in fact, that she can talk about it for almost fifteen minutes without really saying anything (watch the full video below).

Now, I wouldn’t wish her non-specific wrath on anyone, but Mark Zuckerberg must have known he’d be getting a dose of Turkle-talk when the news broke that Facebook is considering new access systems for kids under 13, who are currently technically banned by the rules. Never mind that nearly 40% of 10- to 12-year-olds are already on Facebook, often with the knowledge and support of their parents—in fact, apparently Facebook should be working to correct that errant behavior, not recognize and accommodate it. Why? As Turkle so eloquently puts it, “what Facebook does is it forces you to have a Facebook profile.”

Indeed. And according to her, kids just can’t handle that. This is apparently based on her conversations with kids over 13, who report getting stressed out about the identity they present online:

This is something that’s difficult enough for high school kids. Should I say I like Harry Potter because that’ll show that I’m cool, does that show like I have a childlike side and that’s cool, or is that too nerdy, or…? Just agonizing over decisions like this.

Yes, you read that right: teenagers are worrying about how to look cool. It’s shocking, I know. Turkle thinks that this pressure is now greater than ever because kids have a central online identity, which makes them less able to experiment with different ways of defining themselves—and that they will later be haunted by digital records of their past. There’s some truth to that notion, but it’s hard to see it as much of a problem—we’re talking about broad, shifting trends in the way people communicate, and such trends are the progenitors of societal norms, not slaves to them. If, in 20 years, there is no such thing as a political candidate without an embarrassing photo lurking online, then we can fairly assume society will not be so excitable about such photos; if, when today’s nine-year-olds enter the workforce, they all have to ‘fess up to that [insert silly subculture] phase they went through in high-school, it’s not going to cripple them all emotionally—it’s going to foster an environment where people are less embarrassed and judgmental about such things.

As for having this start a few years earlier, it’s still hard to see the problem—especially when so many kids are already doing it. Obviously nine-year-olds shouldn’t be completely unsupervised on Facebook, nor should they use it without some guidance and advice from their parents—but there aren’t really many things that nine-year-olds should do completely independently anyway. Plus, part of Facebook’s whole plan for new children’s access is to provide better parental controls and simpler, more emphasized privacy settings—so all those young kids who are already using Facebook can hopefully do so more responsibly. Will there, as Turkle fears, be some parents who are overactive in defining their child’s online identity, making personal decisions for them and living through them? Probably—and that might be concerning if it was a new issue, and not one of the oldest and best-known tropes in the parenting-mistake canon.

But then there’s Turkle’s corollary fear, which is that kids aren’t learning human interaction:

At that age anything that takes time away from what you learn face-to-face, the skills of negotiation and being attentive to tone and the delicate kinds of things that you learn when you’re with kids and you’re with your friends and horsing around and really learning how to be a friend face-to-face and the messiness and complexity of human relationships, that’s not good. This is a time when kids need to be encouraged in every way to spend that time face to face, and even suggesting that Facebook is something they might want to do just presents the wrong signals.

Maybe Turkle is unaware, but for most of us, online social skills are now really, really important too. There are unwritten rules and codes of etiquette, and hard-to-define skills of empathy and intuition, in the digital world as well—and online etiquette is only going to be more nuanced and complex when today’s kids are all grown up. Facebook and other online communication is now a pretty big part of the “messiness and complexity of human relationships”, and keeping kids away from it is definitely not going to alleviate social confusion. It also seems likely to create an immediate sense of exclusion from both their peers and society in general—but Turkle doesn’t think so:

First of all, the notion of ten-year-olds and nine-year-olds being ostracized for not being on Facebook – I think that’s a pretty quick jump.

The argument for why kids need it is: that’s where the social events are posted, that’s where kids are sharing where the parties are, where the events are. I’m saying that at ten, it’s better that those things happen in person. Parents should be encouraging children, as much as they can throw their weight behind it, for those things to still be happening in person at that age.

I’m not sure how it’s any kind of stretch to say that kids will feel ostracized for not being allowed to do what their friends are doing—and we’re not talking about jumping off a cliff here. And apparently it’s not enough that kids are still going to each others’ birthday parties—as in, events where they spend all day engaging in face-to-face socialization—Turkle thinks they need to be told about them in person too. I guess that way they’ll be prepared for the adult world, where we all hand-deliver our invitations.

The simple reality is that, yes, Facebook presents new and different social challenges to kids. Every generation has faced unique challenges, because the social landscape is always changing. Every change also presents new opportunities, and while Turkle is worrying about kids getting less face-to-face interaction, those same kids are building whole new kinds of communities that cross traditional borders. Some things will be lost, of course, and to sometimes pine for a “simpler time” is a natural thing in moderation, but Turkle actually wants to talk about the “cost-benefit analysis” of broad social change. How is that even possible with something that can’t be quantified? As a psychologist, Turkle should spend her time looking at ways to maximize the good aspects of social media, instead of fearmongering about the supposedly bad ones.

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Comments on “Sherry Turkle Says Younger Kids Can't Handle Facebook Because Teens Fret About Looking Cool Online”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Wow Facebook forces you to have a Facebook profile.
Ummm how does this work exactly because they seem to be doing a very shitty job of forcing me to sign up with them.

I have a couple really valid question…
Does Sherry Turkle have a Facebook profile?
Does she have more than 5 friends? (not counting bands and other filler crap).

I think her campaign of won’t you think of the children is born out of her inability to deal with her own failure to be liked.
She isn’t getting invited to things and is blaming it on the technology making people forgetting to invite her, rather than accepting she is a killjoy no one wants to be around.
Maybe she posted about how much she liked Twilight and got mocked, so she wants to ruin it for everyone.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

From her glowing profile…
“Professor Turkle writes on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers.”

“Subjectivity refers to the subject and his or her perspective, feelings, beliefs, and desires. In philosophy, the term is usually contrasted with objectivity.”

So because she has problems with it, it is a problem?
Why would anyone talk to someone who is openly inserting her own beliefs into the process.
This is a disturbing idea, that her own experience must trump anything one else’s experiences.
Wouldn’t someone who could be objective be better as they would look at all the facts rather than their own limited viewpoint filling in the gaps as “fact”?

Leads me to still believe she is being bullied on Facebook and is lashing out.

Torg (profile) says:

“If, in 20 years, there is no such thing as a political candidate without an embarrassing photo lurking online, then we can fairly assume society will not be so excitable about such photos”

I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have embarrassing photos somewhere. They’re hiding something. And any halfway savvy politician should be able to spin them similarly: having pictures of your alcohol-induced antics makes you a Man of the People.

relghuar says:

"instead of fearmongering"...

Oh, please. Really?
Since when is talking about positive side of things more appealing than fearmongering about – well, anything?
I must have missed that point, possibly amongst all the fearmongering about cyberwar, drug war, war on terrorism, internet-swamping pedophiles, the end of the world, …

Anonymous Coward says:

Humbug, I grew up pre-internet, was only introduced to it in 1994 when going to college. I had the same excuciating choices when choosing which clothes to wear, which haircut to get, which music to listen to, which people to associate with, whether I was going to play marbles, soccer or join the latest gadget-fad on the playground, … by the age 13 I reached the tipping point into the rebellion phase and I didn’t care about any of these factors anymore.

Exposing them to these issues early is a GOOD thing, the sooner they understand the inherent stupidity of herd mentality, the sooner they develop their own personality.

Forest_GS (profile) says:

It’s hard to argue with the opening fact. More people viewing your “information” may make a youngster nervous, resulting in them trying to do “cool” things.

Unfortunately, those “cool” things can range from smoking to riding a bike off a cliff…

I personally would’ve like to of known about the wonders of the internet when I was five, but I didn’t truly learn of it’s awesomeness until 15.

Lord Binky says:

I think the larger problem is we have an adult who is this significantly troubled over everyone else?s children’s thought process that is…well, fundamentally a child’s natural thought process that is likely quite essential. I don’t know if it’s the fact that she never had to have those decisions made herself that she finds children incapable of handling them, but I don’t get how this could be beneficial at all telling a person early in their life, you are completely incapable of handling personal decisions such as what books or anything you are interested in, much less what you would like your peers to know you are interested in…

Anonymous Coward says:

As a teenager faced with the pressures of trying to be cool I made some terrible choices, like smoking at age 14, and wearing jeans so tight I ran the risk self sterilization.

Fortunately I was able to quit smoking by my late 30s, and father a couple of kids, so no harm done I guess. But imagine the terrible consequences that might befall me if I was a teenager now – I’d probably be walking around with my jeans down around my arse… God forbid!

PolyPusher (profile) says:


She refers to “research” she’s done multiple times. However, at no point do she offer any substantive facts. Why didn’t her research result in any statistics on this topic? What I hear is someone who is desperately trying to support their existing views and not evaluate both the positive and negative consequences. She contradicts herself regarding the role of the parent vs. the role of facebook and is unwilling to consider any possible negative consequences to her suggestions.

Another thing worth noting; She is very nervous and her body language suggests she is unsure of her own position. Anyone feel like suffering through that video again to count the “Um’s?”

PolyPusher (profile) says:

"pretty quick jump?"

I just have to comment on one more aspect that Mike touched on in his commentary. She said she thinks “that’s a pretty quick jump” to assume that kids will feel ostracized if their peers are allowed on Facebook and they are not.

Does she remember being a kid or listen to anything they say when she studies them? When I was in sixth grade “In Living Color” was the new cool show on TV. Sunday night you had to watch it so that Monday morning you could talk about it in school. There was a kid in my class who’s Father was a Pastor and that child was not allowed to watch the show. On Monday morning he couldn’t interact with everyone else. When he tried to he would be shot down and made fun of for not being allowed to watch the show. He was ostracized for something far less socially relevant than Facebook is today.

Rekrul says:

There’s something wrong with that video player. Using Firefox 12 and the latest version of Flash 11, the video instantly starts playing the moment it appears on the screen (loading this page, scrolling down to it on the main page). You don’t have to click it or even move the mouse over it, and there’s no way to pause it. Clicking the Pause button does nothing, neither does clicking on the image itself.

In fact, once you click the Pause button, all the controls become non-functional and grayed out, so you can’t even mute the sound!

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