It has been the policy of Facebook that all members be at least 14 years old. Yet many parents are setting up accounts for the underage kids, and lying about their children’s age just to get them online.
Facebook says it shuts down every underage account it finds and has tried to beef up its age verification systems, it privately concedes that there are millions of underage kids on Facebook.
The Menlo Park, Calif., company currently bans anyone under age 13 from joining, but still an estimated 7.5 million preteens — many under age 10 — are already using the service with their parents’ approval.
The highly charged debate over privacy and safety in the Internet age picked up steam this week as word leaked that Facebook was considering allowing kids younger than 13 to use the service with parental supervision. Either by connecting kids’ accounts to their parents’ accounts thereby giving Mom and Dad control over what their children can do on the site, such as who they can “friend” and what apps they can use.
Lowering the age limit would help the company tap younger users, who advertisers are eager to reach. Kids are also avid users of games — a big moneymaker for Facebook. About 12% of Facebook’s $3.7 billion in 2011 revenue came from its share of Zynga games such as”FarmVille” played on Facebook
It could expose Facebook to the scrutiny of regulators and the ire of parents. Some fear that kids under age 13 are not ready for social networking, where older children have fallen prey to predators or bullies.
Yet a recent Microsoft Research study from last year found 36% of parents knew their children joined Facebook before they turned 13, and that many of them helped their kids sign up.
Facebook already has limited what minors can do on the site. For example, they can’t share content with “everyone,” a setting that allows anyone on the Internet to peruse someone’s posts and photos.
Facebook is having a tough time policing its site. Age limits are too easy to circumvent, and Facebook spokespeople say they shut down every underage account they find, but still there are millions of underage kids on Facebook. And that puts Facebook at odds with a federal law that requires it to get parental consent before collecting personal data on kids.
If Facebook opens up to kids under 13, it will have to put into place safeguards, such as giving parents a way to control what data is mined from their children when they click the “like” button or play a game, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “There need to be strict limits on how much information can be collected and analyzed,” Chester said. “Because Facebook collects data from users and their networks, the privacy of a child’s friends must also be protected.”
The FTC is currently reviewing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which regulates what personal information websites can mine from kids. Facebook spent some of its $650,000 in first-quarter lobbying money on the law.
Parents aren’t the only ones worried that kids would be vulnerable. Lawmakers also expressed concern Monday.
“We acknowledge that more and more children under the age of 13 are using Facebook, and this is a problem that needs to be addressed,” Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) wrote in a letter to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Monday.