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Dear 12-Year-Olds: Skip Facebook

Perils of Facebook

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?

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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."