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Room for Debate: Should Your Child Be on Facebook?

| October 16, 2011

Status: too young for Facebook.

This may be a surprise to many of you: Federal law forbids websites from collecting personal information from children under 13 without parental permission. Officially, Facebook doesn’t let members younger than 13 have a Facebook page. But children do anyway, yielding troves of information about them, personal and marketable.

According to Consumer Reports, 20 million minors actively used Facebook in the past year, and 7.5 million—more than one-third—were younger than 13. More than 5 million were 10 and younger, using accounts unsupervised by their parents (only 18 percent of parents friend their child, though it’s an effective way to monitor activity). Some 1 million children “were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on the site in the past year.”

Facebook doesn’t actively work to stop children from using the site. To the contrary. It’s working very hard to repeal the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in order to legally go after children younger than 13. It’s part of its long-term strategy. Like cigarette makers who knew their future depended on getting kids hooked on their brand, Facebook knows that, as a Times article reports today, “the younger the child, the greater the opportunity to build brand loyalty that might transcend the next social-media trend. And crucially, signing up kids early can accustom them to ‘sharing’ with the big audiences that are at their small fingertips.”

“Sharing” is a marketer’s dream. Besides the warm fuzziness of the word itself (who’s against sharing?), it’s essentially a GPS device on user habits: whatever you do, whatever you share, is telegraphed to Facebook’s dossier on your habits and likes, enabling the ads that appear on your Facebook page to be personalized, and your likes and friends’ likes to be turned into a seemingly innocuous bit of peer pressure: if so many of your friends bought those $129 orange Nikes, shouldn’t you? You can always limit the shares and who sees them, but a recent Columbia University study of 65 Facebook users found that 94 percent of them had no idea they’d shared personal information they hadn’t intended to be made public. That’s not out of ignorance or laziness but the assumption, obviously too generous, that Facebook and other such websites aren’t out to unveil you at every opportunity they get. But they are. And they make it difficult a) to keep up with privacy setting changes and the maze of default settings, and b) to actually navigate those settings on the site itself. The result is the user’s own default setting of shrugging it all off and carrying on, come what may.

Even adults are frustrated, their identities stolen, their backgrounds and likes turned into catnip for advertisers. For children, the Facebook maze, so simple on its face, can be predator’s gaping door. More likely, and far more often, it’s an advertiser’s jackpot.

Facebook is taking measures to hunt down pornography on the site and it’s hooked into the Amber Alert system that helps spread the word about missing children (itself a clever use of technology and marketing by Facebook), but the company’s own default setting is that sharing is the way of the world and of the future: no regulation will stop it, no settings will, either. In other words, resistance is futile.

It’s not just Facebook, of course. Teens and children are targeted everywhere advertisers can get at them. When the Wall Street Journal The Journal examined 50 sites popular with American teens and children to see what tracking tools they installed on a test computer, the analysis found that “the sites placed 4,123 “cookies,” “beacons” and other pieces of tracking technology. That is 30% more than were found in an analysis of the 50 most popular U.S. sites overall, which are generally aimed at adults.”

Facebook tends to get the most attention because it’s now the single-busiest site of them all. It could have enormous influence for the good. It chooses instead to have lucrative and disproportionate influence on behalf of advertisers.

From The Times: “Last fall, Common Sense Media, an advocacy group for kids online that reviews movies, games and apps, left Facebook’s advisory board because, the C.E.O. James Steyer says, he and his staff saw Facebook’s approach to teenager privacy as worsening over time and insisted on saying so publicly. “When we disagreed with them on privacy, they wanted us to keep it quiet,” Steyer says. Facebook says it respects Common Sense Media’s decision.”

A bill was in introduced in Congress called the Do Not Track Kids Act that would forbid websites from using information from any child younger than 17 as fodder for targeted advertising.

As the chief sponsor of H.R. 1895, Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, outlines it, the bill strengthens privacy protections for children and teens by:

  • Requiring online companies to explain the types of personal information collected, how that information is used and disclosed, and the policies for collection of personal information;
  • Requiring online companies to obtain parental consent for collection of children’s personal information;
  • Prohibiting online companies from using personal information of children and teens for targeted marketing purposes;
  • Establishing a “Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Teens” that limits the collection of personal information of teens, including geolocation information of children and teens;
  • Creating an “Eraser Button” for parents and children by requiring companies to permit users to eliminate publicly available personal information content when technologically feasible.

The bill has bipartisan support. It does not have Facebook’s support.

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3 Responses for “Room for Debate: Should Your Child Be on Facebook?”

  1. fuzzywzhe says:

    Just delete your cookies.

    Like this is some sort of ROCKET science or something, or the government has to get involved because you’re TOO LAZY to just DELETE YOUR COOKIES.

    So sick of this fear mongering, when there is an OBVIOUS and SIMPLE solution, which of course our “media” doesn’t even mention. It’s not like people who write on subjects in US “media” are at ALL COMPETENT to DISCUSS the subject. They’re morons and cretins and they sure don’t RESEARCH anything much less inform the public.

  2. Laura says:

    It is astonishing what parents give up for the cause of their children’s social-network worship.

    Facebook subtly feeds narcissism to the point of gluttony.

    I learned it the hard way.

    {{* *}}

  3. Jennifer says:

    My child has a Facebook page. He is 8. He is only allowed to use it supervised by myself or his grandparents, and we have his username and password and are his “friends” on the site. Everything about his page is on lock down and nothing can be seen by those not on his friends list. He mainly uses the site to play games like Cafe World and Farmville. As long as that’s all he’s doing, which I know he is because I monitor his page, then I don’t see the harm in it. It’s the parents who let their children use the site unsupervised who are putting their children’s safety at risk.

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