Letting Children Under 13 On Facebook Could Make Them Safer

The best and safest strategy would be to provide younger children with a safe, secure and private experience that allows them to interact with verified friends and family members without having to lie about their age.
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Two years ago -- long before there was much public discussion about Facebook admitting children under 13 -- I had the opportunity to interview Mark Zuckerberg. But, before I did, I asked a group of educators, Internet safety advocates and youth risk experts to suggest questions. Two experts suggested I ask him about whether Facebook would consider creating a safe environment for kids under 13, not because they had any vested interest in helping Facebook open a new market, but because they knew that millions of young children were already on the service and they wanted to see if there could be a way for Facebook to create a service that could safely serve younger children.

In the interview, Zuckerberg said, "It's something we've talked about a little bit, but the restriction and regulation around it make it very difficult so it's just never been one of the top-of-the-list of things we've wanted to do." (Click here for that segment or the entire interview from May 27, 2010.)

More than a year later, in July 2011, Zuckerberg told an audience at the NewSchools Venture Fund's Summit that he would like to see kids under 13 on Facebook, because "my philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age." He said it would "be a fight we take on at some point," but neither he nor anyone else at Facebook ever revealed specific plans to change the rule that requires people be at least 13 to get a Facebook account.

But in Monday's edition, the Wall Street Journal reported that "Facebook is developing technology that would allow children younger than 13 to use the social-networking site under parental supervision.

The Journal called Facebook's move "a step that could help the company tap a new pool of users for revenue but also inflame privacy concerns" and shortly after the article went live on the web, Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer, who was quoted in the story, issued a statement that Facebook "appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders." He added that "there is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13," and that "there are very legitimate concerns about privacy as well as the impact on the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children." He likened Facebook to "Big Tobacco in appealing to young people -- try to hook kids early, build your brand, and you have a customer for life."

But the Journal also quoted Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler who said, "We would like to see Facebook create a safe space for kids" with "the extra protections needed to ensure a safe, healthy, and age appropriate environment." General Gansler echoed my own sentiments from a year ago when I argued that Facebook "should offer special privacy settings, educational tools and parental controls to assure an appropriate environment for younger children."

What the law says

Legally, it has always been possible for Facebook to allow children under 13, but to do so it would have to comply with provisions of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that requires commercial sites to "obtain verifiable parental consent for the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information from children." But complying with COPPA is difficult and expensive. Although some child-centered sites, operated by Disney and other companies, do go through the hoops to be COPPA compliant, most social networking sites, including Facebook, simply ban anyone whose stated date of birth indicates they're under 13. But because it's based on what people enter, it's easy to lie and there is no generally accepted way to verify the information.

Parents help kids lie about their age

Not only do millions of kids lie to get on Facebook, but most are doing so with the knowledge and help of their parents. Last May, Consumer Reports found that "of the 20 million minors who actively use Facebook," 7.5 million were younger than 13 and more than five million were younger than 10. A 2010 study by McAfee that found 37 percent of 10 to 12 year olds are on Facebook and a study (PDF) released last April from the London School of Economics EU Kids Online project that found that 38 percent of 9- to 12-year-old European children used social-networking sites, with one in five using Facebook, "rising to over 4 in 10 in some countries."

Last fall, a group of researchers from Harvard, University of California, Northwestern University and Microsoft Research published a paper, Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the 'Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, that pointed out that, 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 95 percent of parents were aware their kids were using the service while 78 percent helped create the account.

In an interview, the study's lead author, Dr. danah boyd, told me that parents "want their kids to have access to public life and, today, what public life means is participating even in commercial social media sites." These parents, boyd added, "are not saying get on the sites and then walk away. These are parents who have their computers in the living room, are having conversations with their kids, they often helping them create their accounts to talk to grandma."

FTC Chairman calls it a "complicated issue"

Even the head of the Federal Trade Commission acknowledges that parents should have a role in determining whether their kids should be on the service. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz spoke at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital conference in Palos Verdes, Calif., last week and, during the question and answer session, I asked him about the negative unintended consequences of COPPA, including the fact that parents are helping kids lie to get on Facebook. He acknowledged that "sometimes the parents are actually permitting their children to go on Facebook." But, calling it a "complicated issue," he added, "At least they're having a conversation with their parents and at some level the parents have to be the gate keepers of their young children's Internet access." He said that he doesn't "think the obligations of COPPA are very difficult to follow" and pointed out that COPPA is currently under review by the FTC and, in response to my follow up question, he said "yes it concerns me, absolutely" when I commented that millions of children are being encouraged or condoned to lie, often by their own parents.

Memo to Zuckerberg: Do it right

I think Facebook should allow children under 13 but, as I said last year, it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully with extra precautions. There needs to be parental involvement and control and Facebook needs to provide extra privacy protections for young children that would include more secure defaults than it has for older teens and adults. There are already additional privacy protections for users under 18, but the company needs to be even more careful for younger children. Ideally, I would like to see children under 13 have an ad-free experience and Facebook certainly must avoid collecting and storing personal information about children other than what is needed to provide them the service.

Do it for the children

Whether we like it or not, millions of children are using Facebook, and since there doesn't seem to be a universally effective way to get them off the service, the best and safest strategy would be to provide younger children with a safe, secure and private experience that allows them to interact with verified friends and family members without having to lie about their age.

(Disclosure: I'm co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook.)

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