As more children become exposed to smartphones and tablet technology at an early age, and tech companies like Google, Apple and Amazon aim their marketing at younger audiences, parents are left with the difficult decision of discerning how young is too young to be connected?
    The social media giant Facebook recently released an app in the United States called “Messenger Kids,” which is a privacy-focused app designed to neutralize child predator threats by putting parents in charge of whom their children, under age 13, can converse.
    Students in Jack Bristow’s Livingston Area Career Center Law Enforcement class and Bristow, who has given many talks on the online safety of teenagers, recently weighed in with their thoughts on the topic.
    Bristow started the conversation by asking how old his students were when they got their Facebook accounts. Although Facebook has set an age restriction of 13 and older to set up an account, many of the students said they had a Facebook account before they were 14.
    “It’s as easy as faking your birthday,” Lexi Mennenga, a student in Bristow’s class said.
    Some students reported starting their Facebook accounts around the age of 10. When asked what made them choose to create a Facebook account, many said it was because their friends were already using it.
    “When you see all these family members using it, it’s only natural to want to jump on board, too,” Bristow said. “Facebook’s age restriction is only as good as the truthfulness of the people who are already on it, which is impossible to know.”
    “Although this app is meant to help neutralize child predator threats, the other side of the coin says this is a perfect service for predators to hit. If you can guarantee that only kids 13 and younger are using the app, that’s where predators will be and they will do whatever they have to in order to get exposure to kids. This app is only as good as the parent’s involvement.”
    Students said it’s actually very easy to create a fake profile that might initially slip past a parent’s guard.
    “If you really wanted to, you could go on to the parent’s Facebook account, add some of the people on their friends list, grab a few public pictures and make a new account,” student Stephanie Davies said.
    Everyone assumes that they will never be the victim of a forged account, but Bristow used himself as an example of the fact that it can happen to anyone.
    “I went to get the Parking Panda App, to help find cheaper parking in downtown Chicago,” Bristow said. “When I went to create a profile, the app said my e-mail address had already been used. So, I went in and clicked ‘I forgot my password’ and it gave me a new password and it turns out the account was being used by someone out of Chicago. I was talking with one of the other staff, Mr. Blair, and he suggested that I might have been botted.”
    According to Bristow, some companies will create a program to make up fake accounts so that the company can appear to have more active users than it actually does. According to Bristow, these programs will grab random e-mail addresses and then use those addresses to create an account.
    “It looks like everybody is using this app, but in reality, it’s just a computer program,” Bristow said. “So, I ended up creating a brand-new e-mail account that allowed me to set up an account on the app for myself. I’ll add that none of my information was on the profile other than my e-mail, but that was my first experience of being botted.”
    Although tech companies are pushing the necessity of getting their products in the hands of young children, just about everyone in the law enforcement class agreed that it’s just not necessary for young children.
    “I didn’t get a smartphone until I was a freshman,” student Alec Bristow said. “I know there are a lot of people who are into the social media world, but I’m just not into it.”
    Student Celina Romero said her little niece, who is 7 or 8 years old, already has an iPhone 7 and is connected to popular social media companies like Facebook and Snapchat.
    “There is just so much drama on social media,” Romero said. “She probably doesn’t need to be exposed to that right now.”
    Mennenga is a volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club of Livingston County. She said when the children bring their cellphones in, it usually causes trouble.
    “A lot of it is Snapchat, but some of them will get on Facebook and chat with their friends,” she said. “It becomes a problem when they are supposed to be getting help with homework, but they are not paying attention because they are on their phone, or disturbing other students around them.”
    Davies said if parents feel that their child is old enough to understand the realities of social media and they are willing to set up and monitor their child’s account, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
    “Don’t completely control your kids, be willing to guide them,” she suggested.
    As a parent himself, Bristow said he doesn’t think children need a phone before high school. “There’s just no need for them to have a smartphone,” he said. “There is so much out there that could harm them more than it could help them.”
    Romero’s thought  on the subject was somewhere in-between.
    “I feel like children can be responsible with a phone, but I don’t think they need a smartphone with Internet access. The students are provided a computer at school, so why can’t they just have a flip phone until you get to high school for emergency calls and stuff like that.”