I recently attended my 8th grade daughter’s back-to-school night and was surprised to hear a teacher tell a classroom full of parents that it’s “illegal” to have a Facebook account if you are under 13 years of age. I think she was hoping to scare parents away from allowing their kids on Facebook but the bemused expressions on most of the faces in the room told me she was at least a couple of years too late.
The mistaken claim of illegality comes from a common misunderstanding of legislation that was passed over a decade ago. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires commercial web sites and online services to seek parental permission before they can collect personal information for users under the age of 13. As a result, Facebook and other web sites that attract minors ask for a date of birth as part of the registration process and deny access to anyone who doesn’t meet the minimum age requirement.
However, there is a simple way around it: kids under 13 simply lie about their ages. While entering false information and using the site while under the age of 13 is a breach of Facebook’s terms of service, it is not illegal under COPPA, where the obligations are firmly on the site operators not the users.
So how many kids are entering false information during the registration process? A 2011 Consumer Reports survey estimated that as many as 7.5 million U.S. Facebook users were under the minimum age of 13, a number that has surely risen sharply in the past 12 months.
What attracts so many young kids to Facebook? As pre-teens become increasingly tech-savvy and familiar with the Internet, they are naturally drawn to the fun networking tools enjoyed by older siblings and parents. While just a year or two ago they might have been happy with Club Penguin or Webkinz, they are now looking for something a little more grown-up.
While I’m not condoning children lying about their dates of birth or otherwise violating the terms of service of these web sites, I can sympathize with their points of view. If you have owned a cell phone since you were 10 years old and regularly video chat with friends on Messages or Skype, it can seem a little over-protective to be denied a Facebook or Gmail account. And there is the inevitable peer pressure: it’s no fun sitting at the lunch table reliving last night’s Facebook chat when you were the only one who wasn’t involved!
Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole underage Facebook debate is the number of parents who are aware that their pre-teens have accounts and do nothing about it, or are even complicit in helping their kids set the accounts up. Time and again I hear parents say that they would rather be involved in their kids’ Facebook activities at early age than have an account set up without their knowledge. That way they get to friend their kids and keep an eye on all the posts – an opportunity that might not be there at a later date.
The one-size-fits-all age rules of the Internet might work for you or they might not but only you can say what is right for your child. To me, making sure you are involved in your younger kids’ online activities is good parenting, no matter what COPPA or the current Facebook terms of service happen to say. If you believe your tween is ready for Facebook, then it’s far better to sign-up together and watch over her than leave her to stumble around on her own.