Signing up for Facebook: Under-Age Users and Advice for Families

 

5.11.11 | A survey published in the June issue of Consumer Reports found that of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million were younger than 13, the minimum age for taking part in the social network. Among those users, more than 5 million were age 10 or younger. 

Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org (which receives financial support from Facebook and is also part of Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board), writes at CNET that the numbers of underage users are in-line with other studies. Earlier this year, Facebook’s chief privacy adviser said the site removes 20,000 people a day who are underage.

“A majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children’s use of the site,” Jeff Fox, technology editor for Consumer Reports, said of the survey results. The magazine also emphasized the potential dangers: “In the past year, the use of Facebook has exposed more than five million online U.S. households to some type of abuse including virus infections, identity theft, and—for a million children—bullying.”

Magid notes that there’s no easy fix:

In 2009, I served on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which was formed by 49 state attorneys general and MySpace to investigate, among other things, whether age verification technology could be used to help keep under-aged kids off of social networks and to limit inappropriate contact between online children and adults. The Task Force’s Technical Advisory Board, which consisted of computer scientists and other technology experts from leading universities and companies, looked at a wide range of technologies and concluded that there is technology that can be used to verify the age and identity of adults but not children. Most age verification systems rely on things such as credit reports, real estate transactions and criminal records which—for the most part—aren’t available for children. The board found that “public records of minors range from quite limited to nonexistent.”

The Task Force’s findings were not all that different than Facebook’s own recommendation “that communication between parents/guardians and kids about their use of the Internet is vital.” Facebook requires that users enter their date of birth and if a person enters a birth date that puts them under 13 and later tries to amend that date, a cookie placed on the machine will attempt to prevent them from registering again. That may catch some kids who have trouble subtracting 13 from 2011, but most kids who try will slip right past. Facebook says that it also uses technology and user reports to try to find and delete the accounts of under-age users.

Anne Collier, who also co-directs ConnectSafely.org, adds additional context to the Consumer Reports survey, especially with regard to parental attitudes. She notes that another survey—this one by Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project—was also released this week.

It found that 17% of parents surveyed “said they had no problem with a pre-teen child using a social media site, compared to just 8% a year ago,” Reuters reports, and “11% of parents admitted to using social media sites on behalf of a young child or infant, according to the online survey of about 1,000 adults.” Reuters cites the view of a Columbia University Hospital clinical psychiatry instructor that underage use of social sites is “not alarming,” that it means parents need to be aware of what’s going on with their kids in and how best to use social media. In other key findings of the Liberty Mutual study, about 90% of the parents surveyed use FB frequently; most “think that children under 18 should not be able to keep their account to themselves”; a third monitor their kids’ social site use; and 44% limit the time their kids spend online and texting. As for cyberbullying, Reuters reports that “most parents said they thought it was their responsibility to resolve the situation if their child was a victim and 63% thought teachers and schools should be doing more to stop it.”

Collier throws in some good advice for parents—and advises families on friending without being overbearing:

So – if all these surveys are accurate – it’s clear that parents of kids under 13, especially of those under 11, need to ask their kids if they have Facebook accounts (in as loving and unthreatening a way as possible so the two of you can actually talk), then show Mom or Dad their profiles. Don’t be scared by Consumer Reports; fear is no help, in fact it puts up huge communication hurdles that you and your child don’t need. Just use the information to explain to your child why everybody – not just kids – needs a little help to manage their public image online, and you want to be there for them. In fact, you’d like them to be there for you, too. So the two of you need to be Facebook friends. You don’t have to write on each other’s walls or anything. It’s best not to, because parents and kids usually don’t fully understand the tricky dynamics of each other’s social worlds [...]

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