Underage Facebooking – Facebook may allow children under 13

Facebook has a problem. It has 7.5 million children under the age of 13 which violates its Terms of Service. Congress, the FTC and others are asking Facebook, how are you going to solve underage facebooking? This week, Facebook leaked a possible solution.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is considering opening its network to children under 13. According to the article, Facebook says it is too hard and expensive to verify everyone’s age to determine who is under 13. The alternative is for Facebook to provide the necessary controls to protect privacy and allow children on to its network.

Some organizations thought this was a step in the right direction –

“Whether we like it or not, millions of children are using Facebook, and since there doesn’t seem to be a universally effective way to get them off the service, the best and safest strategy would be to provide younger children with a safe, secure and private experience that allows them to interact with verified friends and family members without having to lie about their age.”  – Larry Magid, Connect Safely

others did not.

“(T)here are currently enormous privacy concerns regarding the teens who already use it and the preteens who sneak on. Why on earth would we suddenly turn over our 8-year-olds to them while they haven’t addressed very well many of those issues yet? It doesn’t make sense. “ – Jim Steyer, Commonsensemedia

In order to allow children under 13, Facebook must adhere to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  Complying with COPPA  is no easy task. COPPA requires parental permission before children sign up and gives parents control over the collection and use of their children’s data. This is why many popular websites simply choose not to allow children under 13.

Many children are already on Facebook with parental approval and supervision. Knowing this is an adult social network, most parents are extra vigilant when it comes to allowing their children access. However, parents may incorrectly assume the age limit is due to content not privacy. By lowering the age limit, parents may falsely believe Facebook has moved from PG-13 to G.

Creating a safe and private social network for children is possible. Yoursphere, imbee and many others have all done it. But, parents will need to understand their role in protecting privacy. They will also need clear guidelines and tools to manage and control their children’s information.

The challenge for Facebook is creating a space for children within a business model that relies on its users sharing as much as possible and monetizing that data. It is hard to imagine how Facebook could provide this high level of control within the Facebook universe. If Facebook does succeed in creating this safe and private area for children, we may all want to be under 13.