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Summary:

Facebook is said to be working on new features that would allow children under 13 to access the network. Is this a way of helping parents encourage their children to develop better online skills, or does it open kids up to privacy problems and other issues?

Facebook is testing new features that would give children under 13 access to the giant social network, according to a report published Monday in the Wall Street Journal. Although one version of this new program would require children to have accounts that are linked to an adult so that supervision is easier, some parents have raised concerns about allowing pre-teens access the network at all due to Facebook’s past handling of privacy-related issues. Others, however, argue that plenty of younger children already access Facebook anyway despite the 13-year-old age limit, and that Facebook is wise to make it official.

In fact, the widespread flouting of the 13-year-old limit — a survey by Consumer Reports found that more than 7 million children under that age are on the network — is described as one of the primary motivations behind the proposed changes. The Journal quotes sources “familiar with the matter” as saying that Facebook is afraid it could face governmental scrutiny because of the large numbers of younger users who access the network, in many cases with the help or knowledge of their parents. The company has already been criticized and sanctioned by regulators a number of times over its handling of privacy.

Zuckerberg has said he wants to appeal to younger users

Facebook didn’t confirm that it is working on the kind of features described by the Wall Street Journal, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said in the past that the issue of allowing younger users access to the network was “a fight we [will] take on at some point.” And a comment from the company suggested that it is aware of — and concerned about — the problem of unauthorized access by kids. As a spokesman told the newspaper:

Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.

When I asked the people who follow me on Twitter for their thoughts on the proposed changes, one of the main arguments for not allowing children under 13 to access the social network was that they aren’t old enough to make appropriate decisions for themselves — about what to share with others, what content they should comment on, what kind of behavior is appropriate, and so on — and that many parents might not supervise them properly. Some said they were concerned children would find ways around any restrictions Facebook might impose, such as requiring parental approval for friending other users or posting content.

On a related point, some parents said they were worried about the permanence of Facebook content, and the impact that over-sharing or other bad decisions by younger children might have on their lives as they get older. Just as some university-age users have found that their behavior on the social network can cause problems for them as they apply for jobs, some parents say they don’t want the questionable choices their children might make as 10-year-olds to impact the way their families or friends or others see them. As one child advocacy group told the Journal:

The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling.

Is it better to train kids early for online life?

The opposing argument is that social networks and the way they affect our lives are things that children are going to have to come to grips with sooner or later, and therefore it’s better to introduce them to the concept gradually rather than blocking them from it until a pre-determined age like 13. Provided Facebook gives parents enough controls over what their children see and do, this theory goes, allowing kids access to the network not only has positive benefits — since it allows them to connect with family and friends more easily — but can provide a good training ground for broader lessons about internet behavior.

Supporters of this viewpoint point out that most children are already capable of accessing plenty of other much more questionable internet sites without their parents’ knowledge, and that this can cause far bigger problems than Facebook ever could. Allowing kids access to the social network would be a better alternative in many ways, they argue.

On a personal note, I allowed my youngest daughter — now 14 — to set up a Facebook account before she turned 13, even though I knew that this was against the site’s terms of service. At the time, I felt that she was more than capable of handling the responsibilities of being on the network, and I thought it was important that she develop the skills of doing so in a relatively safe environment like Facebook. She also knew that I would be friending her and would be able to see her behavior online (and she has two older sisters who I knew would help me keep an eye on her as well, which made a big difference).

Is it better to try and stop younger users from joining networks like Facebook until they reach a certain age, even if we know that large numbers of them are going to do so anyway? Or is Facebook better off making it easy for them and then requiring certain restrictions on what they do, so that they — and their parents — can get ahead of the problem? Let us know what you think in the comments, or by taking the poll below:

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users James Emery and Dutchmassive

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  1. Barry Graubart Monday, June 4, 2012

    As the parent of a 13-y-o daughter, who is not on Facebook, I think that the age cutoff is helpful. Yes, kids could get around it, but unless most of your friends are on FB, you won’t go there. In my daughter’s case, only 2-3 of her friends use FB and they don’t use it much (“it’s for their parents not them”) and instead live on texting and Skype.
    The big issue I see is that tweens really have not yet learned how to communicate. I see how things get miscommunicated between them via text – and how drama flares up so easily due to one person’s interpretation of another’s comment. If you put that on FB, where all their friends could see, the drama and stress would escalate.
    It’s less the privacy that worries me than it is the fact that 12 and 13-yo girls can be unbelievable cruel to one another and putting that out in a more public forum will exacerbate the pains of adolescence.
    There really is little benefit to encouraging tweens to get on FB imo.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Barry — and you are quite right about the emotional torment that young kids can inflict on each other, as I know from experience with all three of my daughters. But I think in some ways I think it’s better to help them learn those kinds of lessons earlier rather than later.

      1. I agree – and we’ve had more than our share this year (7th grade is tough). It’s not the early vs late that I worry about. It’s learning those lessons in one-on-one situations (or small groups) vs in front of a large group (or potentially the entire grade). Allowing the cliques to amplify their perceived influence via Facebook is just unecessary IMO. As they learn to better manage that process as they move into high school, I think it becomes less of a factor.

    2. Control is easier than providing opportunity to grow. When I was presenting mobile tools to parents that where against such technologies, I simply provided the possibilities that appealed to them most. If you could be in control of the media content and exchanges allowed, would that appeal to you? What if enabling a connection to a friend was a reward for positive behavior, and was something that could easily be limited as necessary?

      1. Nicholas – just curious whether you are a parent, and, if so, what age kids. The behavioral dynamics (of girls, in particular) at age 11-14 are pretty interesting. I’ve no interest in “controlling” access, but I’m very cautious about providing a megaphone to those wishing to inflict emotional pain on their peers. It’s not the reward/punishment that I am interested in. It’s when the nasty thing that one kid says to another via text or in-person instead gets broadcast to 100 of their classmates. Shutting off your own kid’s access doesn’t stop the pain they feel when that occurs. All I’m suggesting is that when you have a mix of kids who are not yet strong communicators and all the angst that comes in puberty, you can be certain that lots of unneeded pain will be felt.

      2. Hello Barry, My son is now 26 and went to the school that Mean Girls was based on, so it wasn’t easy. Just as I can control friends and access in the real world, I could do so in the electronic world. Trusted friends are important to both the parent and the child.

        I am saying that control of such situations is a basic requirement. First, psycho-social application structures are going to control educational content and remote guidance. Secondly, friends that are “penpals” are no longer uncommon.

        Enabling communication is an educational goal, and this is critical. And, your worries and fears should not be the basis of product design, but a parameter to discuss how to deal with the issues. As with drugs, which I have had to discuss, it is important to communicate with everybody about these issues. It does take a village, like it or not.

  2. Mathew, the problem with the “we know that large numbers of them are going to do so anyway” argument is that you could use that logic to say that we can allow underage kids free access to alcohol because we know that large numbers of them are going to consume it anyway.

    1. Mathew Ingram Rich Monday, June 4, 2012

      That’s a fair point, Rich — although lots of families, particularly in Europe, try to help their children develop a healthy relationship with alcohol rather than just trying to block them from it and pretend it doesn’t exist. You could argue the same approach would be better for social networks as well.

  3. I was accepted to Startl in 2010, and was looking at social mechanisms for educational content. My background includes developing content for the major educational publishers, primarily textbooks, and now designing mobile applications.

    The question is when we allow this, and how the connections work. Initially it could be restricted to direct connections between parents and approved educators. Such tools would also allow for the feeding of customized content.

    The problem in the education space, is achieving traction in a space where any discussion of technology brings near luddite reactions, requires big money and a heavy penetration rate. Hopefully, Facebook or Amazon can bring an open market mentality to such social connections. There is plenty of money if truly social textbooks could enable independent content developers to provide excellent product. I left my business in 2005 after becoming tired of creating dry static content, and recognizing that the publishers where in for a newspaper like ride to the bottom.

  4. Desperation, pure desperation from Facebook to even consider this age group on such a flat form. I have not red one convincing argument for this tech travesty; this is nothing but a move to increase accounts.
    With reports that showed 40% of Facebook accounts is SPAM, I guess most of it adult themed, why should I even think of having child near such smut. With inflated users and SPAM; if anyone believes that Facebook have 800-900 million users, I have two world class suspension bridges for sale: The Golden Gate and th Bay Bridge, heck, I will throw in the Brooklyn Bridge for free. Cheers.

  5. Thomas Krafft Tuesday, June 5, 2012

    I would say “yes”, but only if Facebook could do something like disallow all app access (except for their own). There’s nothing wrong with FB as a way to communicate, plan events, or share content… What I don’t want is a million apps, all with unrestricted post and account access permissions (that parents couldn’t control otherwise) making life miserable, complicated, and potentially threatening for kids – who *are* too young to make completely informed decisions, particularly about privacy and safety. But they could definitely handle using FB for messages and starting to archive their digital lives. If they have a cellphone, and parent’s permission (coming from the same IP address as the kids’ request), along with controls and/or default “off” setting for non-FB apps, then that would go a long way to making more parents more comfortable with this idea.

    1. All Facebook games are apps, and that is primarily what children want to do on facebook, play the “cool” games. So yah, Facebook = kids.

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