A Consumer Reports study from May 2011 shows that an estimated 7.5 million U.S. kids under 13 are on Facebook, and about 5 million of those are under the age of ten. Yet federal regulations concerning the collecting and sharing of personal information of minors puts the age cutoff for having an account on Facebook at 13.
What’s the big deal about letting young children onto Facebook? Isn’t it just natural for these digital natives to connect with their friends and share information and updates with each other online?
Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg thinks it’s a great idea to let kids into the online community. In an interview following the Consumer Report, Zuckerberg said to Fortune Magazine that it would be a great “educational experience” for kids to be on Facebook.
“My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age,” Zuckerberg said in the interview with Fortune Magazine, adding that he’d like to see if he can change the federal rules over time. Child advocacy groups are less excited about minors on Facebook.
Personally, I suspect letting kids get on Facebook would be great mostly for Zuckerberg’s bottom line. With my background as a sports journalist, the issue reminds me of athletes doping. In cycling, for example, it’s the team owners that benefit the most from doping, not the athletes. After all, the athletes eventually risk ruining their health and their future earning potential.
Similarly, with Facebook, it’s the owners that benefit the most. The kids run the risk of damaging their self-esteem through cyber bullying, not having “enough” friends, or not being “friended” by the cool kids. Child advocates also worry about young internet users not recognizing the long-term impacts that online behavior might have on their reputations. The internet never forgets: pictures showing underage drinking and illegal drug use, or lies, rumors and innuendo aren’t easily wiped clean from an individual’s reputation.
There are good reasons for making doping illegal in sports and not all of them have to do with fairness. There are good reasons for banning young kids on Facebook and not all of that has to do with wasted time.
The State of the Union
According to the Los Angeles Times, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor testified before the Senate Commerce Committee and admitted that Facebook doesn’t spend a lot of time tracking the age of its users. In fact, they have only 100 employees tracking the activity of 600 million users. Facebook shuts down accounts if they find that users are younger than 13 but they often rely on other users to report underage account holders.
According to the Huffington Post, Facebook is currently being sued for failing to get parental permission before using minors’ personal information in its social ads.
Furthermore, Facebook is frequently under scrutiny for not having a good handle on protecting personal information. There have been frequent leaks of private information to third-party applications, where personal information on millions of users has been released and is not covered by Facebook’s terms of service.
And then there are the issues of predation, adult content, identity theft, economic scams and computer viruses.
Facebook is Forever
Maile Martinez, a program manager at Reel Grrls, a non-profit in Seattle that teaches media literacy and digital film making to girls age 9 to 19, is more concerned about what kids do online, and the kinds of personal data that they share online, than the potential for adult content and adults preying on kids though Facebook.
“We’re more concerned about cyber bullying. When we were kids, we would make prank phone calls. That was rude. Now, kids can post something that’s untrue about someone on their wall, and that’s much worse. The one being bullied can’t be sure how long the post has been up there and how many have seen it before it’s taken down,” Martinez says, pointing out that even deleted posts are traceable.
“Children and young teens don’t have a sense of the memory of Facebook. They don’t realize that their profiles can be searchable and content is traceable pretty much forever. Maybe in 10 years, they feel differently about what they would put out there,” she says.
Martinez worries that Facebook and the perceived need to be constantly connected, constantly in the loop of what everyone is doing, adds more stress to kids who are already under a lot of pressure from friends, school and other obligations.
“It’s a constant noise. Kids are stressed out in general, and this adds another layer of stress that is so constant. Kids tell us that feel like they always have to have their phones with them and be connected to know if there is any drama going on that involves them. Maybe someone posted a picture of them that was ugly. Maybe someone updated their status to ‘in a relationship’ when it was someone they were sort of interested in. It’s just stressful,” Martinez says.
Blurring lines between marketing and content
Martinez also worried about the amount of marketing and advertising that kids are exposed to on Facebook and online in general.
“Younger teens and elementary school kids really don’t understand when they are being marketed to,” she says, pointing out that the internet increasingly weaves ads into the rest of what you are seeing, which makes it harder to sort from other content.
“Say you follow Justin Bieber on Twitter and he writes a lot about a product he is using, then you think that since you like Justin Bieber, you’ll want to have that product. Kids have a harder time interpreting when people are pushing a product,” she says.
Kids Don’t Need to be on Facebook
Ingrid Butler, an MCDM student and mother of two young girls in Seattle, also sees perils for tweens on facebook. She points out that what gets uploaded on the Internet can remain there indefinitely, and travel far beyond the circles for which it was intended.
“There are so many reasons that kids DO NOT need to be on Facebook that I don’t know where to begin. I think it’s great that today’s kids are comfortable with computers and surfing the internet but it’s not as ‘cool’ as one may think. There are a lot of dangers our there such as predators, adult content and worst of all…bullies,” Butler says.
“My 12-year-old daughter is not on Facebook or anything else because I understand the dangers and have expressed them to her. She has experienced a good helping of the bullying this year and we are both so grateful that she did not have an account. A couple of weeks ago she said, ‘I’m so glad I’m not on Facebook.’ That statement means a lot to me, because that means she heard what I was saying to her and she understands the consequences of playing with fire,” Butler explains.
Butler produced a video about the impacts of bullying on her daughter for her Multimedia Storytelling class this quarter
She says she sees several issues with parents allowing their kids to lie about their age in order to set up Facebook accounts.
“When parents decide to help their kids trick the system, what does that say to the child? That lets them know it’s ok to tell a lie and I don’t agree with that parenting practice at all,” she concludes.
Taking a Stand
Martinez is happy to see that many parents are taking a personal interest in what their kids do online, and moderating what they can be engaged in.
“I recently heard some news about the Obama family where a reporter asked if the Obama girls were on Facebook, and Michelle Obama said that ‘no, they do not need to be on Facebook.’ I love it when our First Family makes such a positive statement,” Martinez concludes.