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.