Sunday, June 12, 2011

FakeBook? A Lesson on Identity Construction

(Recently posted on Media Psychology Impact)

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: (CC)BrianSolis,
www., via Wikimedia Commons.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg created quite a stir recently when he suggested that children under the age of 13 should be allowed on Facebook. He argued that since over 7.5 million children younger than 13 are on Facebook anyway, according to a study by Consumer Reports, we might as well let them join legally (rather than lying about their age). He promised that Facebook would “take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger kids] are safe." (Hmmm, I wonder if they’ll be anything like the precautions they take with adults... like those that require constant vigilance over Facebook's changing privacy settings?).

Safety issues aside, are kids younger than 13 really ready for Facebook?  I mean, who among us can’t conjure up a humiliating memory of being made fun of or laughed at by friends, classmates or family after making a silly or socially awkward mistake as a child? Now imagine that same uncomfortable moment played out in the most public of forums and living forever in cyberspace, with potentially vast invisible audiences getting to witness our humiliation. Ouch. That could require years of therapy.

Figuring out whom we are and how to present that self to the world, let alone the virtual world, is the work of adolescence. Both Sigmund Freud and Erik Erickson viewed the years leading up to adolescence as a period of relative calm, or a “latency” stage”, when children are busy developing ego strengths and cognitive skills. “The danger of this stage is an excessive feeling of inadequacy and inferiority” (Erikson, 1963, p. 260). Since opportunities for feeling both inadequate and inferior certainly abound on Facebook, why not give kids a few more years to develop the skills of resiliency on the school playground before setting them loose in the vast landscape of Facebook?

That’s not to say that social networks like Facebook don’t provide a terrific forum for teens, to “write themselves into being” (boyd, 2008, p. 167). There is plenty evidence to suggest that “presenting themselves in different ways online can be a healthy way for young people to explore identities they’d like to ‘try on’, without having to face the consequences of doing so in the offline world. Many young people report feeling they can be more authentic and real online because they don’t have to worry about appearance or other limitation of the offline world” (Common Sense Media, 2011). Stories abound about shy children who blossom socially online and then transfer those positive skills back to their offline worlds.

But even with all its advantages, it’s still a daunting task for teens, or any of us for that matter, to construct and manage our online identities. danah boyd writes about this in Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality (2008) saying that teens are “forced to face the ways in which impression management in networked publics is unlike that which takes place in face-to-face encounters. The technical affordances for defining the situation and presenting oneself are quite different, forcing teens to explicitly articulate their identity, imagine the context in which they are operating, and negotiate the impressions they are conveying with few structures for feedback.

Providing feedback was the work of our 6th grade CyberCivics class. I teach skills to a class of 6th graders that will hopefully help them become good digital citizens. Recently these students interviewed one another in order to create “FakeBook” profiles (on construction paper) of their partners (this lesson was adapted from Common Sense Media). When the students presented these profiles to the class, I was prepared for lots of inappropriate stuff to be shared. That was the purpose of the lesson, after all. But I can report that they have heard our warnings about the dangers of over-sharing online loud and clear.

Additionally, I learned, these kids don’t like people knowing where they are or where they live. This aligns with recent research that shows that kids find location-based services, like Foursquare and Facebook Places, kind of creepy. Interestingly, the only inappropriate stories that came up in class were about parents. Evidently we embarrass them by posting too many photos and silly comments about them and their siblings. They’d really like us to stop.

So does that fact that these 12-year olds seemed cyber savvy beyond their years mean that they’re ready for Facebook? Maybe. Hopefully, several months of Cyber Civics lessons have helped. 

Still, I think years well spent on a playground provide the best lessons of all.


boyd, danah (2008). “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality” . Retrieved from

Common Sense Media (n.d.). Common sense media education programs. Retrieved from

Erikson, E.H. (1993). Childhood and society(2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.