Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Facebook Plans Accounts for Kids

Facebook just can't get out of the news - and off parents' backs. The latest: the company is considering allowing children under 13 to join the mammoth social network.

Consumer Reports says that 7.5 million children under the age of 13 have an account, including five million under age 10. The Wall Street Journal conducted its own study, and found that nearly 20% of kids under age 10 use Facebook. With these numbers climbing, and with recent criticism about cyberbullying, privacy violations and the ease at which an underage child can join Facebook (just lie about your birth date), the company says it's been forced to consider exploring ways that children can join the site. According to the company, it's developing a new system to help parents better supervise accounts for kids under 13.

The Wall Street Journal had this to say about the potential changes:
"...Child advocates opposed the idea, saying that Facebook should instead focus on explaining to parents and children that the site isn't appropriate for use by children under 13.
"We don't have the proper science and social research to evaluate the potential pros and cons that social-media platforms are doing to teenagers," said James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a child-advocacy group based in San Francisco. "The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling."
The reason Facebook has an age minimum of 13 is that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits the collection of personal information from anyone under the age of 13 unless they adhere to specific FCC guidelines. It's certainly not because Facebook is thinking about the interests of a child. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg has been publicly said that he believes children under 13 should be allowed to use Facebook. The company has even admitted that it's spent $650,000 in the first quarter in lobbying related to COPPA.

No, it's all about the money. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is pressured to continue its revenue growth.  The solution? Widen the nets; allow more people to join. The entertainment industry has been eagerly awaiting news that Facebook will allow more kids to join, no doubt because it opens a new frontier for peddling games, toys, and junk food - and for collecting marketing data.

The cynic in me fully expects that Facebook will eventually win this one. When you pit a child's well-being against the markets, it's kind of like pitting David against Goliath - without giving David a slingshot. Enough pressure, dollar bills and time will eventually erode common sense. Corporations like Facebook will hide behind their common public incantation: "It's up to the parent to decide what's best for the child," knowing full well that parents can't be everywhere at every moment, and that not every parent makes the right decision every time.

I can only hope that child advocacy organizations continue to get the funding that they deserve to raise awareness of the pitfalls that will result from these potential changes with Facebook - and with the other networks that will surely follow the social network's footsteps.

More articles on the subject, all citing the Wall Street Journal article:
Facebook Plans To End the 'No Kids Under 13' Farce (Forbes)
Facebook may let kids under 13 join with parent's help (USA Today)

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