It's come to our attention at Tom's Guide that a number of people in the Internet-connected world are currently 12 years old, meaning that sometime between tomorrow and 12 months from now, you'll be turning 13. Here's our advice for when you do: Steer clear of Facebook.
And yes, before you ask, this is going to be one of those "do as I say, not as I do" articles that tweens (rightly) hate. But look at it this way: we 13-and-older fogeys who make up the entire population of Squaresville, USA made our mistake long ago. Most of us couldn't quit Facebook even if we wanted to. It's not too late for you.
Facebook with benefits
Let's assume (perhaps incorrectly) that you haven't already faked your age and signed up, and that you are dutifully awaiting your 13th birthday, the age when Facebook allows you to join up, with saint-like patience and near-religious ardor. You can't wait to join Facebook, and for good reason.
Facebook is a way to keep in touch with all of your friends at once. Finally, your camp friends and your school friends and your friends from your old neighborhood will all be in one place! You can join groups, make comprehensive lists of your favorite books and movies, play social games and set up all sorts of rad events. You kids still say "rad," right?
On the other hand, I’m assuming you've read "Harry Potter" or seen "Star Wars" at some point, and you know that power has its price. Yes, Facebook is the most convenient and widespread social networking site on the Web. It didn't get that way by playing nice.
First off, to fill out a standard profile, Facebook will ask you to give your email address, your full name, your street address, your school, your birthday, your gender, your sexual orientation, what languages you speak, your religious beliefs, your political affiliation, your phone number and more.
You can leave almost any of this stuff out (and very few people share every last detail), but the less info you list, the harder you are to find. The harder you are to find, the smaller and less vibrant your network becomes. Facebook encourages you to share as much as possible. Make no mistake: Watching discussions deepen as your network grows is both fun and satisfying for you, the user.
However, Facebook can use every single piece of this information to invade your privacy. Forget about cybercriminals for a minute; Facebook security (while not impervious) will keep you fairly safe from them.
But did you ever wonder why Facebook is free? It's supported by ads. That's not necessarily a bad thing; lots of the Web is supported by ads. These ads are putting you, specifically, in their crosshairs.
Here's an experiment: Ask two friends or family members to log into Facebook. If you look to the right, you'll see the ads they get. Are you curious why Mom's and Dad's ads are so different, or why your older sibling gets different ads than your uncle? It's because Facebook sells your information to advertisers and allows them to make "targeted ads."
A word on ads
Back in the days when cavemen roamed the earth and connected to the Internet by striking rocks together near a dial-up modem, online ads were pretty simple. A company that wanted to advertise a product would approach a site, pay them some money and blast users with ads for everything from video games to household cleaning supplies.
This didn't work that well for obvious reasons. No two people need exactly the same products. A little old lady is not going to be too interested in video games, and teenagers probably don't need to buy many cleaning products. After a while, advertisers wised up and began crafting ads specifically for certain audiences.
When you give Facebook your information, the company then sells much of that information to advertisers so that they can hawk relevant services in your general direction. It's not always accurate (as I write this, Facebook is advertising hair-regrowth products to me; my current hairdo could choke a walrus). But it's better than targeting everyone and hoping against hope that someone cares.
Let's say you fill out your current city as New York. You'll get ads for local concerts and restaurants. If you list your religion as Christian, you will get ads all about local ministries and missionary opportunities. Did you put "Lord of the Rings" as one of your favorite books? Get ready for a deluge of self-published fantasy eBooks clogging up your ad stream.
A lifetime of information
"So Facebook wants to show me targeted ads," you might think. "Big deal. Maybe I'll even find something useful." Maybe you will. But keep in mind, once advertisers have your information, they won't just use it for Facebook ads. Advertisers, hundreds of them, will keep your information close to the chest and use it every time your name comes up.
No matter where you go online, you'll find ads directed toward you as long as you stay logged into Facebook account (most people never log out, and advertisers can track you to other sites). The more information you provide, the more specific they will be. People you've never met will know more than your closest friends about where you've lived, what you like to watch and how to get in touch with you.
Once you're on Facebook, there's no way to recall your information, either. Even if you delete your account, the advertisers still have access to all of your pertinent details, and you'll only pry those out of their cold, dead hands.
This isn't to say that you shouldn't get involved in social media — just the opposite, in fact. Speaking as someone who's been there since the early days of Facebook, it's actually kind of lame. Twitter is better for sharing your thoughts. Tumblr is better for posting pictures, videos and animated GIFs. Gchat is better for sending private messages (so is Snapchat, which is also fun to use).
Look, guys and gals, I've been there. Peer pressure is really, really tough when you're 12, and it's only going to get worse once you hit high school. Stay strong and avoid Facebook, though, and you'll reap a lifetime of rewards.
Besides, your parents are on Facebook. That should tell you about how cool it is.