Kids lying to Facebook not Parents

 7.5 million kids under 13  have Facebook profiles in violation of  Facebook’s age restriction .  These kids lied to Facebook about their age, but according to a new survey they did not lie to their parents.  Researchers — danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey — surveyed 1,007 parents with children between the ages of 10-14.  Their survey results were published in the report “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’” .  What they found was that parents not only had a fairly good idea what sites their kids were on but they were working with their kids to bypass age restrictions. 

Kids were not sneaking on to Facebook.  Across all ages, no less than 82 percent of parents were aware their child created an account.  These kids were not sitting alone opening an account.  Parents were right beside them. Among the 84 percent of parents who were aware when their child first created the account, 64 percent helped create the account.   

According to danah boyd one of the researchers, parents helped their kids because they wanted their kids to have access to a digital life.   These parents were engaged and wanted to serve as a guide for their kids. Parents also incorrectly believed the age restriction was a recommendation not a requirement.  Half of these parents believed it was OK to violate the age restriction because their child was under parental supervision.     

Unfortunately, this decision was made without understanding why a minimum age even existed.  When asked, the most common answer given corresponded to “I don’t know.”  The survey also recorded a wide variety of other explanations, including “because it’s more for adults,” “children don’t need to have a social media presence,” “due to adult content and language,” and “to protect minors from perverts.” Only two parents referenced privacy.

The winning answer was privacy.  To stop websites from collecting children’s data without parents knowing about it, congress passed the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  COPPA required companies to obtain parental permission before collecting data from children under 13. Many websites avoid COPPA by simply posting an age restriction in their Terms of Service not allowing children under 13 to access the site.  Many of the most popular websites — Facebook, YouTube, Blogger — have this age restriction.   

Parents are struggling to balance their kid’s digital life with concerns over online safety and data collection.  Of the parents surveyed, 59% found parenting in the digital age more challenging.  But when asked specifically about data collection, only 9% believed their kids received targeted ads.  Parents appear to be unaware of how much data is collected and how we all receive targeted ads.  It is not just parents and kids who do not understand big data.  All of us need more tools for understanding and protecting privacy.

Parents did not see more regulations as the answer.  When forced to choose between different potential governmental roles, two–thirds of parents wanted governmental policies that provide information or guidance instead of policies that create restrictions. Many parents (35 %) did not want any government involvement. Most parents wanted their child to participate on these popular websites but needed more guidance on how to protect their children’s information.  

Parents are involved and taking an active role in their kids digital life.  Unfortunately, kids and parents are currently making decisions without fully understanding what is happening to their children’s information.   This survey clearly points out the need for a better understanding of data collection and digital literacy. In order to mentor their kids, parents need to know who is collecting the information and why. 

So should websites do away with age restrictions?  Honestly as a parent, I sometimes like age restrictions.  I can easily postpone an activity that I believe we are not ready without too much drama.  In fact, I have used the age restriction to delay my kids entering the world of Facebook.  But I also know, they will eventually be on a social network.  I would rather have their first experience be under my watch than at their first year in college.