Cost of Online Social Networks for Tweens

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Can I get a Facebook account?” asked the sixth grader to her parents. “All of my friends are on it and I feel left out because I don’t have an account,” she argued. She wrapped up by saying, “Besides, Facebook is free and you won’t have to pay anything for me to join.”

By middle school, most children have joined a social network. Facebook continues to be one of the most popular social networks followed by Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. All of these social networks provide free accounts that tweens can use to connect and share with their friends and classmates.

While there are several basic internet safety issues that tweens should be aware of, one that is not discussed very often is the issue of the cost of joining a social network. When tweens are asked how much Facebook costs to join, they usually look stupefied and then say that Facebook is free.

This is a great question to use with tweens to get them to start appreciating that no service is totally free, there is always a cost. In the case of Facebook and most other social networks, the cost is a person’s privacy.

Tweens are not used to thinking about privacy the way that adults do. They have spent most of their lives with their parents and teachers knowing everything that goes on about them. It isn’t until the dawning of adolescence that tweens begin to consider privacy as an issue. Therefore, tweens lack of concern about their privacy can be expected.

However, parents can use the occasion of tweens starting to use social networks as a way to begin the discussion about privacy and why it matters. Facebook is a good place to start as the cost of their services become quite apparent.

Parents can follow-up the cost question by asking how Facebook could stay in business if everything they do is for free. Tweens may not have thought about this before. Facebook makes money by selling user information to advertisers.

A tween’s personal information is much more valuable to Facebook as it allows them to personalize the ads that they sell. For example whenever a person “Likes” a page or product, the person’s image will frequently show up on other friends’ pages as an endorsement of the product.

This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the information that Facebook and other social networks collect and use. Parents can take tweens to Facebook to further enlighten them on Facebook’s data collection. Parents should highlight a sponsored ad on their Facebook page. In the upper right-hand corner, there is an X that when clicked tells all about how Facebook is using the ads and why a person is seeing them.

Hopefully this will start the process of tweens recognizing the importance of their online privacy. It could also encourage them to pay more attention to privacy settings on social networks and to be more careful in what they post.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on July 20, 2014.

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