Facing Facebook: The Attempt to Provide Kids Commercial-Free Spaces Online


10.13.11 | The New York Times’ Emily Bazelon takes Facebook to task on its privacy policies in an upcoming story in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. What strikes me as particularly noteworthy in her piece, “Why Facebook is After Your Kids,” is not that Facebook has lots of underage users, which we’ve covered before (7.5 million kids age 12 and younger, according to Consumer Reports), nor is it that kids need help navigating their online identities, which we’ve also discussed at great lengths.


Instead, it’s the issue of commercialism that stands out as a topic too often missing from discussions about safety online.

As a parent, what frightens me way more than cyberbullying when I think about my toddlers growing up and getting online is corporate interests having unregulated, unfettered access to market their products to my children. And this marketing is directed at younger ages than ever before. 

As Bazelon points out, Facebook has a defined interest in getting younger users to share content online. The more kids share on social networking sites, the more people they are connected to. The more “likes” they post, the more potential ad revenue Facebook brings in. 

“The younger the child, the greater the opportunity to build brand loyalty that might transcend the next social-media trend,” Bazelon writes. “And crucially, signing up kids early can accustom them to ‘sharing’ with the big audiences that are at their small fingertips.”

And Bazelon points out that though Facebook has taken some important steps to protect kids from online dangers – like using technology to find and remove child pornography and allying with school principals to protect kids from bullying – the company has refused to step in when the decision impacts its bottom line, as changing default privacy settings for teenagers would do, for example.

Facebook’s latest changes have made it even easier for more shared information to zoom across networks. A recent Columbia University study found that 94 percent of college students surveyed were sharing personal information on Facebook that they didn’t intend to make public.

Bazelon notes that online safety advocates often have compromised relationships with large companies like Facebook and Google, which may provide financing to the very same groups that are seen as watchdogs.

A new bill in Congress would bar websites from using kids’ data to target ads to them until they are 17.

But generally it’s mostly up to parents and educators to teach kids to be savvy internet users and information consumers. We can’t keep kids off Facebook, and most of us don’t want to, but we can find spaces for them to play and learn in that are free from commercial and corporate interests.

From Elmo diapers in the maternity ward to Stars Wars games on the playground, commercial free spaces are getting harder and harder to come by. Marketing to young people is more pervasive than ever before, even though we know kids are developmentally much more vulnerable to advertising than adults.

Online spaces are no different. And as kids become interested in playing games associated with their favorite TV shows, watching DVDs, and going to the website of a favorite toy, the line separating content from advertising is becoming increasingly blurred.

We need to have critical conversations about what it means to allow marketers access to our children’s social worlds and how to teach kids the difference between content and advertising as soon as they are old enough to understand.

There are a growing number of quality noncommercial social networking spaces – including the Digital Youth Network’s Remix Learning and Quest to Learn’s Being Me – designed to allow kids to take advantage of technology for learning in healthy and exciting ways. They offer what Facebook does not – the opportunity to connect with others who share their own interests and to create, and learn from their peers without the intrusion of commercialization and advertising.

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