The Kids Are Already There: Why (Legally) Allowing Young Children on Facebook May Make More Sense Than You Think
6.12.12 | Facebook recently announced it is working on new technology to allow users under the age of 13 to sign up for the wildly popular social network. There’s been lots of outcry from parents and privacy advocates, and not without good reason. As Emily Bazelon points out in Slate, the company does not have a very good track record in serving our youngest citizens.
“Facebook is interested in kids because it wants to encourage them to share widely,” Bazelon writes, “as early in their lives as possible, because that’s good for the company’s market share, now and in the future. […] This is a company under pressure to increase profits—and one whose record with teenagers doesn’t demonstrate that it’s a good place for younger kids to grow up.”
Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer is also concerned about the “impact of social media on the social, cognitive and emotional development of teens,” he told the Washington Post.
“Why on the earth would I want them to also go after my 8- or 9-year-old?” he said. “What’s next, Facebook for toddlers?”
Steyer is the author of a new book, “Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide To Raising Kids in the Digital Age,” that offers advice to help parents navigate their kids’ online lives.
But Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, of which Facebook is a member, says there are aspects of these concerns that may be misguided.
As we’ve reported, millions of kids under the age of 13 are already using social networks by lying about their age.
A 2011 survey published in 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. The Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), plays a role here. Passed in 1998, COPPA mandates that websites get parental consent before collecting personal information from those under age 13.
Research also shows some parents know that their underage children are on Facebook in violation of the site’s restrictions, and are often complicit in helping their children join the site. But in practice, children are often unsupervised while online and lack important education or training in digital literacy, including how to protect their own privacy.
Balkam says we need to empower kids to have safe and positive experiences with technology by encouraging family consent and involvement.
“Kids’ first interactions with the Internet and social media should not include deception,” he writes. “Facebook already provides increased privacy protections for children between the ages of 13 and 17, but in their haste to use the service, many teens lie about their age, missing out on existing safeguards. We don’t want to teach children to lie to their parents or to the services that they are using, but we also don’t want them to lose out on the chance to connect with others and to learn.”
Signing up for Facebook should be viewed, Balkam says, as an opportunity for conversation and education. Kids should be working with parents to discuss online communication, what to share and what not to share, and how to develop a responsible online profile. The work we do now, he says, can help prepare young children to be better digital citizens, equipped to responsibly manage their own online profiles and activities as they get older.
Balkam advises parents of young children to oversee who their child friends on Facebook, and to set default privacy settings to friends-only, which kids should not be able to modify.
The Family Online Safety Institute plans to launch a website called A Platform for Good, with information on digital citizenship, later this year.
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