In the past year, the most common question we've answered at YouthBeat is "at what age do kids start using Facebook?" Obviously, the answer has changed every few months, as Facebook has spread like good news or like a virus, depending on your perspective, among the connected cohort called Digital Natives. From where we sit, the game has played out differently among youth than one might expect. Certainly, more and more teens make the plunge all the time. The number of friends that 14-18 year olds have, on average has grown exponentially since we began tracking in 2008. 70% of teens report having visited a social networking site in the past week (among online teens). But what about the younger kids? What's the actual - versus the "legal" - age of entry into the online social sphere for today's youth?
An article in Ad Age from this week claims that over 7 million users of Facebook don't meet the age threshold of thirteen - the official age that users can join according to the site's rules. However, we know that rules are sometimes meant to be broken, and that, of course, applies to virtual rules too. 24% of 6 to 12 year olds in our YouthBeat survey say they visit social networking sites. Many tweens tell tales of sneaking onto the site, but more youth we've chatted with say their parents put them on the site. Some younger users only sign on to say hi to family, and many meet up with mom and dad on the sites while their working parents are on the road.
Critics of social networking worry that kids are getting into friending too fast...Are we on the verge of a time when 6 year olds will count their colleagues on the computer? Or when our 6 year olds will "like" their favorite brands with a virtual versus real thumbs up? Probably not. The need for speed that fuels the teen Facebook frenzy doesn't really exist for kids. Collecting is cool, but Silly Bandz might be more interesting to inventory than your classmates. And kids' networks tend to be much simpler and more manageable than adults'. They don't have college friends across the country, or friends who they can't keep track of. While families might be far aflung, a few Skype sessions might do the trick more than the maintenance of an account bearing your name. And most importantly, social networking can feel more work than not for this generation. They, moreso than their older brothers and sisters, recognize that this game is complicated. Given the choice, gaming sounds like a better use of time than getting into a conversation with friends from school.
But it may also be too soon to tell...Disney now owns Togetherville...Everywhere we turn, we see another "safe" social space set up with this younger age group in mind. And at the same time. The protests of parents seem to be losing steam (even if a few passionate parents continue to speak out against socializing for the kid set). No matter what happens, we'll keep watching.