Pre-Teens May Soon Be Allowed To Join Facebook
June 4, 2012

Pre-Teens May Soon Be Allowed To Join Facebook

The under-thirteen crowd may soon be able to openly sign up for a Facebook account soon, as the social networking giant is now in the midst of developing technology that will allow the youngsters to have an account without having to lie about their age just to be connected.

While Facebook bans any user under 13 years of age from joining the site, many lie to get an account, which puts the company in an awkward position regarding federal law that prohibits websites from collecting personal data from children without parental consent.

Mechanisms of the technology, still being tested, would likely see children connecting to Facebook through their parents´ accounts with controls allowing them to decide who their kids can “friend” and what apps they can use, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is a very sensitive issue given how regulators are already highly concerned about how Facebook handles and protects user privacy. But Facebook is concerned over potential backlash from regulators due to the reportedly millions of children that are already using the site illegally. The site said it believes it has little choice but to find a way to allow children to have a protected presence on Facebook.

In an interview with Forbes journalist Larry Magid in 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “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 the top-of-the-list of things we´ve wanted to do.”

But the Wall Street Journal reported today that Facebook´s move to find a way for children under 13 to be connected is “a step that could help the company tap a new pool of users for revenue but also inflame privacy concerns.”

Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer issued a statement shortly after that story went public.

He said that Facebook “appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders,” and 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.”

Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler supports the move. “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,” WSJ quoted him as saying.

While it has always been possible for Facebook to allow children under 13 to join the site, doing so would require the company to comply with provisions of the Children´ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which makes it illegal to use personal data from children without parental consent. And complying with COPPA is difficult and expensive.

While many sites centering on children have taken the measures to comply with COPPA, Facebook has continued to take the easy route and just ban anyone who is under the age of 13. But because it is based on what people enter as a birth date, it is easy to lie and there is no accurate way to verify the information.

According to Consumer Reports, as many as 7.5 million children under 13 years old were using Facebook in 2011. As many as 5 million of those were also under the age of 10.

And it´s not just that children are lying to get on Facebook, a study sponsored by Microsoft Research last fall found that 36 percent of parents were aware that their children had joined Facebook before they were 13 and that a substantial percentage of those parents actually helped their kids lie to get on the site.

The Microsoft Research sponsored paper, along with support from Harvard, University of California, and Northwestern University, pointed out that, for children under 13 who signed up for a Facebook account, 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.

The study´s lead author, Dr. Danah Boyd, said 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.” He added that these parents “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.”

Data from studies have fueled concerns about how Facebook handles user privacy in general. Last November, the social networking giant agreed to a 20-year settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over accusations that it misled users about its use of their personal information. Facebook acknowledged that it made mistakes and agreed to privacy audits.

Despite the FTC´s stance on privacy issues with the social networking site, the group´s chairman, Jon Leibowitz, acknowledged that parents should have a role in determining whether their kids should be on the site.

Speaking at the All Things Digital Conference in Palos Verdes, California last week, Leibowitz said the issue was complicated, but kids are going to continue to find their way onto the site, and “at some level the parents have to be the gate keepers of their young children´s Internet access.”

He told Magid 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. Leibowitz also noted that he is concerned that millions of children are being encouraged or condoned to lie by their parents.

Zuckerberg said at a public forum a year ago that he believed that children under 13 should be allowed to use Facebook. “That will be a fight we take on at some point,” he said, according to news reports.