Kids Still Finding Their Way On To Facebook, Thanks To Their Parents
November 2, 2011

Kids Still Finding Their Way On To Facebook, Thanks To Their Parents

Millions of children, some as young as 8 years old, are on Facebook despite rules that prohibit those under 13 from joining the social-networking site, according to new findings of a study appearing in the online journal First Monday. The study also found that many parents actually help their younger children sign up on the site.

Congress passed the Children´s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998 that requires Websites to “obtain verifiable parental consent” before collecting personal information from children under 13. This law, enacted long before the advent of social networking, was designed to protect children from revealing information that could be used by companies to sell them products or by others to exploit them.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces COPPA, makes it clear that children under the age of 13 are “particularly vulnerable to overreaching by marketers.” COPPA doesn´t prevent companies like Facebook from admitting kids under 13, but it does present substantial and expensive roadblocks.

Researchers in the new study, “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the ℠Children's Online Privacy Protection Act´”, argue that such age restrictions, inspired by COPPA, are largely ignored by most kids and even their parents, who are only encouraging dishonesty.

The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive, but was designed, supervised, and analyzed by authors Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and NYU, Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University, Jason Schultz from University of California, Berkeley, and John Palfrey from Harvard University.

The study polled 1,007 US parents who have children between the ages of 10 and 14. Nearly a fifth (19 percent) of parents of ten-year-olds acknowledged that their child was on Facebook. About 32 percent of parents of 11-year-olds knew their child was on it, and 55 percent of parents with 12-year-olds knew their child was using the social networking site. All these children had to lie to get an account.

For those kids who were under 13 at the time they signed up on Facebook, 68 percent of the parents “indicated that they helped their child create the account.”

Perhaps what is most shocking, only two of the 1,007 parents polled said they knew about the Children´s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Thirteen years after the enactment of COPPA, parents still know little about the government restrictions meant to protect their children´s privacy, and by allowing their kids to lie to get on Facebook, they are negating the laws that are meant to protect their kids.

It isn´t Facebook and other sites that needs to change in this instance, or even parents, said the study. It is COPPA.

Facebook and other social networking sites for the most part respect COPPA by promptly banning any account tied to underage usage.

“Facebook removes 20,000 people a day, people who are underage,” Facebook privacy czar Mozelle Thompson stressed in March, following a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that found nearly half of all 12-year-olds in the US are using social network sites.

“If you are reporting a child´s account registered under a false date of birth, and the child´s age is reasonably verifiable as under 13, we will promptly delete the account. If the reported child´s age is not reasonably verifiable as under 13, then we may not be able to take action on the account,” said Thompson.

Consumer Reports in May said that 7.5 million Facebook users were under 13, and “a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children´s use of the site.” The CR survey also found that many children were largely unsupervised by their parents when on Facebook, “exposing them to malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies.”

Parents usually associate age restrictions with level of maturity, and the Harris survey found that many parents allowed their kids to violate Facebook´s Terms of Service by lying about their age to join, basically throwing their own maturity level out the window by knowingly putting their children in harm´s way.

While many parents are concerned about privacy and online safety issues, they also may not understand the risks that children face or how their data are used.

Perhaps parental unawareness of privacy issues speaks well of COPPA´s initial effectiveness as well. “COPPA has succeeded both in stopping some egregious predatory data practices and in raising some level of awareness of the issue of collecting data about children,” the study noted. “The FTC has actively enforced COPPA, leveraging civil penalties against those who fail to obtain parental consent or ineffectively implement its provisions.”

But when kids lie about their age to get on Facebook, their personal data is collected with no parental consent needed at that point. A lot has changed since COPPA launched in 1998. “Social network sites, mobile communication technology, geo—locative data (i.e., a child´s physical location as known to a Web service or mobile device), and interactive media,” are all examples cited in 2010 by the FTC calling for public comments on revamping COPPA.

There is a lot of debate included in FTC´s review of COPPA. Some think it should be liberalized, while others want its protections extended to all teens under 18.

But, while there are always going to be Internet dangers that parents need to be concerned about, including cyber bullies, perverts, and adult content and language, laws cannot replace parents when it comes to safely guiding children through unavoidable online obstacles. Online privacy has its place for both children and adults.

The study proposes that “policy—makers shift away from privacy regulation models that are based on age or other demographic categories and, instead, develop universal privacy protections for online users.” 


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