Under Age, Under Supervised and on Facebook
"But EVERYBODY'S doing it!"
And they're right. It does seem like everybody is using Facebook.
Consumer Reports' State of the Net survey reports that, as of July 2011, there are 750 million active users on Facebook. In May 2011, reports stated that 7.5 million of these users were under the age of 13, and 5 million of them were under the age of 10.
The Pew Research Center reported that 38% of 12 year olds were using social networks in mid-2009
Why is 13 the "magic number"?
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act was passed in 1998. It states that anyone who operates a commercial website or online service that collect information, or data, from children under the age of 13 must obtain parental consent. The easiest way for Facebook to deal with this is to require everyone who signs up to be over the age of 13.
Obtaining parental consent is not difficult. Sites like Club Penguin and Wizard 101 do it. So does Yahooligans (Yahoo for kids). So the reason that it's not appealing to the great minds behind Facebook could be that Facebook is not specifically a site for kids? I really don't know what the reason is, but I assume they have one.
What's the appeal for our tweens?
Our tweens have grown up in the digital age. They register for events online, they get their news online, they play games online, they communicate online. In their book "Born Digital", John Palfrey and Urs Gasser write "The first generation of "Digital Natives" - children who were born into and raised in the digital world - are coming of age, and soon our world will be reshaped in their image. Our economy, our politics, our culture, and even the structure of our family life will be forever transformed." ... and that was in 2008 - positively historical by today's standards!
It then stands to reason that these kids - known as Generation Z, Generation I, Generation Text, Digital Natives and even Generation @, depending on who you talk to - also want to interact online. They were brought up on a steady diet of email, Skype and Netflix!
Facebook has become THE preferred method of communication. We no longer have to email photos to our friends and family, we simply post them on Facebook and tag them! We no longer have to go to our desktop to play Hearts or Minesweeper, we can open up Facebook to play Angry Birds then post our score for all our friends to beat. Many of us don't even email any more, we just send Facebook messages!
We can organize a party, complete with invite list. We can share YouTube clips and interesting news stories. We can share information posted either by other users or by businesses. We can find and share great shopping deals, jobs, and reviews of the latest movies. All without leaving Facebook. And that's appealing for our tweens.
So what's the problem?
In March 2011 it was reported that Facebook removes approximately 20,000 profiles from the site every day for various infractions, including spam, inappropriate content and underage use, as part of its efforts to boost cyber security. Twenty thousand profiles.
The minimum age limit for Facebook is 13. So our children are signing up with false identities (names and/or birth dates); or with their parents knowledge, using real names and false dates of birth.
The first is an issue because it clearly means they are deceiving their parents in order to create an account. The second is an issue because it means the parents are encouraging the child to lie. I've heard parents use excuses such as "she's only going to play the games" and "I have his password and I'm his friend, so it's OK." Guess what? It's lying! It's not OK! You've seen people going to jail for writing bad checks (lying about their financial situation) ... what's the difference here?
I've also heard parents condoning this "age inflation", explaining it away by stating that their 10 year old is mature enough to handle it. That their child will not be victimized by cyber-bullies. That everyone knows the child is really not 13 so they will treat them accordingly. Sorry. You're wrong. I've seen the consequences, and they are not pretty! And, your child is not necessarily the angelic creature you'd like to think, and retaliation can bring out the worst in a person.
Many Facebook users are not aware that if they falsify their information, they cannot change it later. Take this scenario. Little Alfonse opens a Facebook account when he's 10. He falsifies his age and says he's 13. He finishes elementary school and cruises through Jr High, and then he gets to High School and announces on his Facebook page that he's so proud to be a Freshman at his local High School! But wait, Alfonse, your profile says that you're 17? What happened? Did you get held back for 3 years somewhere along the line?
Here's another one. "I only let them friend relatives and other kids." From an article in the New York Times, 3/12/2011 “The risks for under-age members of social networks are not theoretical. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of Myspace, who now runs an Internet safety consulting business, recounted a recent incident from his business. In New York State, he said, an 11-year-old boy accepted a friend request on Facebook from a girl in his class. But the girl’s account was fake, and the person behind it began posting images of the boy on sex-oriented sites, along with nasty comments. When the boy’s images started showing up in Google searches, the school suspected that he had posted them and summoned his parents. Other children began picking on him. “It can be a living nightmare for an 11-year-old who just wanted to hang out with his friends,” Mr. Nigam said.”
What does Facebook say?
Facebook pretty much distances itself from this issue. It's not a simple matter to have an underage person's account removed - you are encouraged to help them delete it themselves.
From the Facebook Help Center
“Facebook requires individuals to be at least 13 years old before they can create an account. In some jurisdictions, the age limit may be higher. Providing false information to create an account is always a violation of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. This includes accounts registered on the behalf of under 13 year old children by older parties.
If your underage child (child under the age of 13) has created an account on Facebook, you can show them how to delete their account by having them log into their account and following this link.
If you would like to report an account registered for an underage child to us, please do so here. We will promptly delete the account of any child under the age of 13 that is reported to us through this form.”
The form requires you to know the email address attached to the account. Not as easy as it looks, is it!
The Dark Side of Facebook
- The Dark Side of Facebook | Video - ABC News
Is the world's most popular site also one of the most dangerous?
Following a cyberbullying incident in Australia, a Sydney school threatened under age Facebook users with expulsion.
In an email sent to parents, the headmaster said "Either children had lied about their age or their parents had helped them join Facebook. Let me be very clear - it is an immense parenting mistake to allow for either to happen.''
There, apparently, is no "kid-endorsed" alternative. We've tried Imbee, we've tried Togetherville - and they're just not, well, they're just not Facebook!
We need to do a better job of educating our children, and even other adults, on the reason there is an age requirement for Facebook. "Thirteen" is not just a figure that someone pulled out of the air, it's actually mandated by the US Government.
It's ultimately up to parents and guardians to enforce the rules, and let their children know that it's not OK to lie. Even to a computer.
The job of watching your children should not fall to a computer. There is no substitute for human interaction. Your position in your family cannot be replaced by a computer. By all means make sure you know your child's password and login, and by all means check on their accounts at any time, and by all means insist that they have to "friend" you ... but please don't let them register before they're 13!
Safetyweb has some great social networking safety tips and references.
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