Perhaps you have heard the news that social networking giant Facebook is taking a look at ways to safely allow under 13-year-olds into the network. You will hear compelling arguments for both sides of the discussion: is it a good idea to let kids under 13 in? There’s no legal reason younger kids aren’t allowed. It would simply require that Facebook comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that offers greater protection to children for their personal information. Many sites already do the extra work to comply so the model exists for parental notification of youthful participation in a commercial site. You’ll remember that Facebook began as a site just for college students. Their first major expansion was to grow beyond Harvard and a few other schools. Then they grew in a big jump when they invited all adults to join. Is allowing children in just an inevitable step in the company’s evolution?
So what are parents worried about? We know that a huge segment of children already have accounts and most do so with parental approval and involvement. The young kids with accounts who don’t involve their parents may have “stealth” or secret accounts. Additionally, some kids will create more than one account to hide groups of friends or riskier behavior from their parents.
Some concerns about letting underage kids have Facebook accounts:
Exposure to inappropriate content
Advertising and marketing to kids
Permanence of kid’s youthful posts
Kids sharing information with strangers
Loss of privacy
So many of the things we worry about for our kids can seem irrational. For example, do you let your 11 year old walk to school? Despite all evidence that walking to school, riding public transportation and playing outside is completely safe, many modern parents fear allowing their child to engage in these activities. Even if you dare to allow your child to take the bus to the mall, you risk the criticism heaped upon you by other parents in your community. I know, having allowed my children exactly that freedom and having heard rebuke from many good friends.
Certainly letting kids onto Facebook will require a great deal of parental involvement. Mom or Dad will need to create an anchor account, if they don’t already have a Facebook account. They will need to tie their account to the child’s. Will the child’s account be tied to an email account for the child? Not all email services allow minors to legally have an email account. Not that most parents or kids read the EULA but you’ll notice most services do state you must be 18 to use their service.
And then, will having little ones on Facebook change it? Facebook is already perceived as “less cool” now that Mom has an account, even worse when Grandpa got there, too. Now, with your little cousin posting his Little League scores, will people embrace the change? Or will teens and young people stream away in search of edgier fare? Will Mom and Dad become fatigued from policing the rude language and racy videos posted by friends in their network and end up cancelling their child’s account? Will new software emerge to make that job easier? Certainly, we’ll need a way to keep kids safe from malware and clicking on links that would take them off the site, potentially to scam sites or adult fare.
I think this move from Facebook is inevitable and correct. We know kids are on Facebook with both known and “stealth” accounts. Caring parents want help in guiding their children’s “on-ramp” experience into social networking. You will want to keep an eye on their privacy and security settings, you will want to know who they are “friending” and the nature of that relationship. How do they know each other; school, summer camp, dance class? Can we keep a record of that info? Consider which social gaming is age appropriate. There are sticky areas for sure. If an older teen, such as a cousin, posts racy photos from Spring Break or rude comments appear from her friends, how do you stop your little one from seeing it?
Just yesterday, my brother and his wife had a new baby. He will likely soon post photos of the new baby girl to his Facebook account, as most of us do. Her name will be shared and she’ll have a social presence before she can agree to it. What will happen in the future if her official Facebook account began at birth? And is this historical social network record good or bad? Certainly this will be challenging and worthy of continued discussion.