[Originally published at Forbes.com on 4th June 2012]
The Wall Street Journal reported thatFacebook is considering ways to open up its social network to under 13 year olds. Well, what they mean is finding ways of allowing access to 13 year olds officially. Research by Danah Boyd and her colleagues has shown that they are already there. What’s more, they are there with the help and assistance of parents, over half of whom know that officially Facebook is off limits for their kids but help them get on anyway. Recently, my daughter turned 13 and I took a close look at the legal and official situation. It is, frankly, a mess and does little to protect privacy or children. Indeed, as I have noted, the whole matter has caused confusion as to who might be violating laws regarding under 13 year olds on social networks.
The report suggested that parents could grant their kids access and control over who they friend. It would also allow them to control applications. This sounds like the right approach as it essentially enables parents who are currently helping their kids on to Facebook control the process more transparently. It should also give confidence to those who shy away from these things to let their kids in.
It is worthwhile remarking that while I do not believe that Facebook are acting to “get them young” there are some commercial issues that are likely driving this. First, Google Apps for Education has made its way into schools. That gives kids access to Google’s social network — Google +. I’ve seen Facebook blocked at school but the kids just move on to Google+ that can’t be similarly blocked. Facebook have probably noticed.
Second, the millions of kids on Facebook are currently seeing ads. That means for Facebook advertisers you don’t know if your age-targeted ads are really hitting people of that age. You may be targeting a 17 year old but getting an 11 year old. That’s wasted advertising dollars. For that reason alone, Facebook has no choice but to clean up the age situation. Without that it is crimping the products they are selling to advertisers.
Of course, it isn’t hard to find someone to criticise these moves. Aspokesperson from Common Sense Media was quoted saying that there was simply no educational value to Facebook and so children should be barred from it. But, in fact, such off the handle views neglect a critical element of online social networks; they are how adults are communicating. Moreover, they are likely to be how children when they grow up will communicate. What that means is that we want children to experience these networks. Put simply, a parental supervised approach is like giving them training wheels for society. There are rules of interaction and norms of appropriate behavior. Either you believe parents have a role in helping kids with that or not. And at the moment what the law and Facebook’s official policy are saying is: when you turn 13 you are on your own. I don’t know about you but my preference is not to throw my thirteen year old into society unprepared.
In the Huffington Post, Larry Magid presents a sane voice of reason:
I think Facebook should allow children under 13 but, as I said last year, it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully with extra precautions. There needs to be parental involvement and control and Facebook needs to provide extra privacy protections for young children that would include more secure defaults than it has for older teens and adults. There are already additional privacy protections for users under 18, but the company needs to be even more careful for younger children. Ideally, I would like to see children under 13 have an ad-free experience and Facebook certainly must avoid collecting and storing personal information about children other than what is needed to provide them the service.
I would agree with this mostly but not the last part. If the notion of having children on Facebook is about ‘training wheels’ then they have to be trained to understand what that means. Children need to sort out ads and how to react to them. Children need to work out how to manage their data and privacy. This is part of the mission. I am happy for these things to be under parental control but I wouldn’t require or even insist on Facebook playing a role in structuring the social and commercial experience for kids.
As a final thought, think about it this way: if your child is your ‘friend’ prior to 13, they are likely to be your friend for a while afterwards. Sure, they’ll eventually likely want to block posts from your view but it would be nice to get a few extra years in to see what’s going on in their lives. Who knows? Start early and they might get used to staying as open to you as they are to the rest of the world.