Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's recent comment that children under 13 should be allowed on Facebook didn't surprise me. When I asked him about this a year ago, he told me, "It's something that we've talked about a little bit, but the restrictions and regulations about it make it very difficult so it's not the top of the list of things we want to do."
Apparently, he hasn't changed his mind since last year. At the E-G8 Summit in Paris a few days later, Zuckerberg reiterated that it's not a top priority. "Sometime in the future, I think it makes sense to explore that," he said, "but we're not working on it right now."
If Facebook were ever to welcome U.S. children under 13, it would have to comply with or convince Congress to change COPPA (PDF), a federal law that requires interactive sites to get "verifiable parental consent" before connecting or letting a child under 13 post "personal information," including name, address, email address. Although it involves a cost for the service and effort on the part of parents, it's not out of question for Facebook to create a COPPA-compliant way for under 13s to sign up.
Millions of under-13s already on Facebook
According to Consumer Reports (June 2011), there are 7.5 million U.S. children under the age of 13 already on Facebook and more than 5 million under 10. That validates other research, including a 2010 survey from McAfee that found 37% of 10-to-12-year-olds using Facebook as well as a 2011 study from the EU Kids Online research project that found that 38% of 9-to-12-year-old European children used social-networking sites, with one in five using Facebook." In some countries as many as 40% of pre-teens are on Facebook. Every one of these children had to lie about their age to get on simply because Facebook's terms of service require that users be at least 13.
In a blog post about the Consumer Reports study, my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier urged parents not to let the notion of young kids on Facebook scare them, but to "use the information to explain to your child why everybody -- not just kids -- needs a little help to manage their pubic image online."
Letting kids join makes sense
Given this reality, Zuckerberg's aspiration to someday admit kids under 13 actually makes sense. We could all ignore the reality that children 12 and under want to be on Facebook too, but the smarter and safer approach would be to acknowledge it and embrace it by creating a service optimized for them.
Just as Facebook now has special privacy protections for members who say they're under 18 at sign-up, the company could provide additional protections for members under 13.
COPPA is mainly about children's privacy, not safety. Although there are connections between privacy and safety, there is no evidence that children under 13 are at any particular risk of physical harm or sexual abuse if they use Facebook, even if they post personal information. Despite widespread public concern about predators, research (PDF) has shown that the probability of a teenager being sexually assaulted by someone they meet online is extremely low and that it's virtually non-existent when it comes to pre-pubescent children, especially compared to the much higher risk of children being harmed by people they know in the real world.
The bigger risk, of course, is how kids behave online towards themselves and others, such as posting photos and posts that could embarrass them now or in the future. There are also concerns about commercial exploitation of children. It's bad enough that young children have historically been bombarded with TV commercials for toys and unhealthy foods. Do we really want to extend that to the Internet?
Under 13s require special protections
If Facebook were to open up to preteens, it should do more than simply comply with the law. It should offer special privacy settings, educational tools and parental controls to assure an appropriate environment for younger children. But Facebook needs to avoid being so overprotective that kids wind up lying about their age to avoid being treated like babies. It's a tough balancing act that would require a great deal of thought.
What should parents do now?
Although, in an ideal world, parents should be discouraging their children from lying or breaking rules, we need to acknowledge the world as it is.
What parents can do now
If you are going to allow your child to use Facebook, I recommend that you have an account there yourself and insist that your children "friend" you. In exchange, kids and parent might agree that you will be a lurker on their pages. Don't write on their walls, don't tag them in pictures. Just keep an eye on what they're doing and don't say anything unless it's a battle you really want to fight. Trying to micromanage your children's Facebook activities will likely lead to resentment and removing you as a friend. But if you see something you feel really is dangerous, emotionally disturbing or inappropriate, than a word to your child (in person, not online) is totally appropriate.
If you Friend your child, even if you don't post to their page, your name will show up on your child's friend list but there are other ways to keep in touch with what they are posting without actually friending them. Services such as SafetyWeb and products like Trend Micro's Online Guardian for Families will automatically analyze children's online activities and provide parents an alert if something is posted by your child or someone else that might put your child at risk. That encourages that important, ongoing parent-child conversation about kids' social experiences online as well as offline. While technology can be helpful, it is never a substitute for parental involvement. Open communication helps them develop the critical thinking that will protect them for a lifetime.
For more, including step-by-step directions to optimize privacy settings for young people, please check out ConnectSafely's free publication, A Parents Guide to Facebook.
More Information and Resources
Survey: 7.5M Facebook users below minimum age (CNET News)
Internet Prevention Messages: Targeting the Right Online Behaviors. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine article that presents research that sharing personal information doesn't lead to increased victimization)
Net safety task force says predation risk exaggerated (SafeKids.com)
Disclosures: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, which recieves financial support from Facebook and Safetyweb which were both mentioned in this article.