By now, it probably seems like everyone you know is on Facebook. And statistically, that's almost accurate: Nearly one-seventh of the world's population is represented on the social networking site, which was launched only eight years ago. But until recently, Facebook kept itself closed to one significant audience: children ages 12 and under.
Earlier this year, Facebook made the controversial decision to open itself to users of all ages – perhaps in acknowledgement that the age restriction was hard to enforce anyway. But with the social pressures of another new school year upon us now, young Internet users may still be wondering: Is it a good idea for me to start connecting on Facebook so early?
The verdict: Stick to the original idea, and wait until you're of high school age.
"I don't see why anyone 12 or younger needs to be on social media," said Hannah Gordon, a senior at Immaculata Academy in Hamburg. "There's just no reason for anyone that young to be having a Facebook account, ever."
Hannah, 17, fully understands the benefits of social networking at a young age. She signed up for Facebook as a 14-year-old freshman, and said it was especially helpful at the beginning of high school. As a student attending private school for the first time, Facebook helped Hannah meet new friends, see who was in her classes and learn about activities and clubs she could join. Even though she is less interested in using Facebook now – "I almost wish I could delete my page," she said – it has remained helpful as her friends grow up and move away or go to college.
But those are all things the average middle schooler doesn't have to worry about yet.
If you want to join Facebook, "wait until you're older," Hannah advises younger students. "Unless you have a good reason, like going to a new school, people 12 or younger have no reason to go on it. They have no friends across the country, no relatives they can't pick up a phone and call."
Sean Wright, a 15-year-old sophomore at Clarence High School, understands the pressure to sign up as soon as possible. He joined Facebook toward the end of eighth grade because "a lot of my friends were already on it," he said. He "used it a lot" when he first joined, and upon entering high school, he liked being able "to meet someone new and then Facebook-friend them."
Even so, he's not sure if he would recommend others to do as he did.
"I can see why [kids 12 and under] would want to use Facebook, but I don't know if that's really a good idea," he said. For younger kids, it can be overwhelming to meet so many people so easily through the website, especially when most kids "don't know how to be safe on the Internet."
Facebook is controversial for a number of reasons, but for users around this age, it is most notorious for the recent incidents of bullying and harassment it has been associated with.
Kelly Muldowney, a sixth-grade teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, is familiar with these problems, at home and on the job. She and her husband won't let her 12-year-old daughter sign up for Facebook, even though Muldowney said she is used to hearing the "everyone else has one" reason.
"We have seen too many kids her age using Facebook as a tool to bully other kids," Muldowney said. "We've seen Facebook being used by kids that age to experiment with their sexuality" by posting provocative pictures of themselves.
As a teacher, Muldowney said the discussion of whether her students should be on Facebook comes up "probably on a weekly basis." At work, she has all too often seen the issues of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct exemplified by some of her preteen students. If the topic ever comes up in the classroom, Muldowney said she advises her students to "be cautious" about using Facebook, or just hold off on it altogether.
"It just opens up a whole new world for kids to go beyond their years of where their maturity is," she said. While she has noticed some students benefit by using Facebook to interact "about homework assignments," she said, "I don't think it's being used so much for academics."
But what about the best-case scenario? What if young users never encounter any of the problems associated with Facebook, and it could even help boost their grades or get them on the volleyball team? Even so, Hannah said, waiting just a year or two can make all the difference.
When children are that young, they need time to develop essential, real-world social skills – "to differentiate between Facebook time and time to get out and be with friends," as Hannah put it. And she thinks the earlier kids get on Facebook, the harder it will be for them to learn to interact in the real world.
"They end up losing a lot of social skills," she said. "I've talked to kids who think it's awkward to go to a friend's house because they might have to knock on the door and say hi to someone they don't know. You just want to tell them that before cellphones and everything, that's the way things were!"
Hannah said that even age 13 might not be the right age to join Facebook, but it still gives kids just enough time to learn "how to just go and say hi to someone."
But these days, that's a lesson that crosses age barriers."I see too many teenagers just playing on their smartphones and ignoring everybody around them," Hannah said. "And adults, too."