This week’s news that Facebook is exploring options for ways to allow under 13s to access the site brought forward a predictable outburst of criticism and dire warnings.
“We believe strongly that children and their personal information should not be viewed as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder,” said Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) in a joint statement.
“What Facebook is proposing is similar to the strategies used by Big Tobacco in appealing to young people – try to hook kids early, build your brand, and you have a customer for life,” said James Steyer, the outspoken CEO and founder of consumer watchdog group Common Sense Media.
Now I know many consider too much time spent on Facebook to be a problem but I have never seen it compared to smoking, which is believed to be directly responsible for up to 400,000 deaths a year in the United States alone!
The truth is that Facebook is taking some much-needed steps to address a problem that exists despite the well-meaning efforts of Congress, privacy advocates, and other media watchdogs: Facebook is used by millions of children under the age of 13, most of whom have set up accounts with the express approval and even help of their parents.
Facebook underlined the problems it faces when it released the following statement: “Many 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,” the statement said. “We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.”
Although The Wall Street Journal, which broke the original story, was vague about the measures that Facebook might introduce, there was talk of linking the pages for children under 13 to their parents’ accounts, allowing them to approve who the children can add as friends and which apps they can use. The new features may also allow Facebook to charge parents for games and other entertainment enjoyed by their children.
This would acknowledge an important issue when it comes to use of these social networking platforms by underage kids: that the primary responsibility for policing what young children do online lies with their parents. Yes, we may want content providers to make it harder for young kids to access adult material but unfortunately that’s not how it works. The proliferation of mobile devices and faster networks means that it’s becoming easier to go anywhere online, not harder.
As I often say, if you have a pool in your backyard and you are serious about keeping your kids safe, then you put up a fence. But if you are really serious about keeping them safe, you teach them how to swim. The Internet is no different. Facebook is a very big pool and they don’t want your child falling in the deep end any more than you do.
Do you think Facebook should be open to under-13s with their parents’ supervision? Share your thoughts with Kiwi Commons and The Online Mom!