Facebook is in the process of developing technology that would enable children 13 and under to use the social media site. Parental supervision would be required with some possible mechanisms being that a child’s account would be linked to his or her parent’s account and parents able to decide whom a child could “friend” and which applications he or she could use.
This sounds all very well but it is predicated on the assumption that parents know what they are doing, in regard to the social media site’s privacy controls and other features. A sign that this it not the case is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposing to spend $200 million to train parents (in particular, those with less education and with lower incomes) about how to use technology and, in particular, digital technologies such as social media networks.
What’s more, as Larry Magid wrote on CNET, a peer-reviewed study released in April–”Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’” (available via FirstMonday.org) — has found that many parents knowingly assist their underage children to gain access to “age-restricted sites in violation of those sites’ terms of service.” Specifically,
Nearby a fifth (19 percent) of the parents of 10-year-olds acknowledged that their child was on Facebook. About a third (32 percent) of parents of 11-year-olds knew their kid was on it. And the same was true for more than half (55 percent) of parents of 12-year-olds. Each of these kids had to lie to get an account.
For kids who were under 13 at the time they signed up, 68 percent of the parents “indicated that they helped their child create the account.” Among 10-year-olds on Facebook, a whopping 95 percent of parents were aware their kids were using the service and 78 percent helped create the account.
In addition, 4 percent of the children are 6 years or under.
Children could be using Facebook to stay in touch with (for instance) distant relatives, siblings at college and such, as Magid points out. Accordingly, he argues that he “would much rather see kids using Facebook in an age-appropriate way (with plenty of educational resources for kids and parents about safety and privacy) than the status quo in which millions of kid are using the service anyway without these protections.”
Such protections are meant to be provided under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1989. COPPA requires websites to “obtain verifiable parental consent” before collecting the private information of children under 13 but does not prevent websites like Facebook (which, like MySpace and other social media sites, came into existence after COPPA was enacted) from admitting children under 13. As Magid writes, sites like Facebook, Google+ and others block pre-teens from using them. Age limits are specified in their terms of service and prospective members must provide their date of birth to join — but such is usually the only sort of age verification requested, as other sorts of verification tools potentially have “unintended security and privacy consequences such as the risk of leaking the names and ages of children.”
Magid notes that the FTC is reviewing COPPA, with some wanting its controls extended to those 18 and over and others calling for it to be liberalized.
But it is not only privacy concerns that parents and all of us should be concerned about as Facebook seeks to open its service to children 13 and under. The Wall Street Journal notes that doing so could “help the company tap a new pool of users for revenue.” With Facebook tracking our every “like” and the words in status updates and comments, not to mention the vast trove of personal data it has from users, making its site accessible to children under 13 should be seen as what it is: A business decision intended to help shore up the company’s profits. Facebook’s share price fell to a new record low today ($26.57) after a report from Sanford Bernstein gave it an underperform rating and a $25 target price. ”It is difficult to argue for owning the stock today,” the report’s author, analyst Carlos Kirjner wrote.
It is not difficult to see why Facebook might be wishing to add to its 900 million users.
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Photo by Wesley Fryer