In May, Consumer Reports revealed that there were 7.5 million kids younger than 13 using Facebook, including more than five million 10 and under. In every case these kids had to lie to get around Facebook's rule that you must be 13 or older to join.
One might assume that these kids are also deceiving their parents, but that's often not the case. As I point out in my CNET blog, many parents are not only aware their kids are on Facebook but actually helped them set up the account.
Most parents know
A new study, "Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the 'Children's Online Privacy Protection Act,'" points out that:
- 95 percent of the parents whose 10-year-old was on Facebook knew about it
- 78 percent of them helped the kid sign up. Of all kids under 13
- 68 percent of parents helped their child create the account
- 78 percent of parents think it is OK for their child to violate minimum age restrictions on services
Overall, said the survey, "Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of parents whose child is on Facebook and who reported a minimum age knew that their child was on Facebook below what they believed the minimum age to be."
COPPA to Blame?
The primary reason that Facebook doesn't allow kids under 13 is because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The law doesn't force companies like Facebook that collect personal information about users to block kids under 13, but it sets up a lot of road blocks including a requirement that the company get "verifiable parental consent." The process is expensive for companies and time-consuming for parents so, most companies that allow users to enter personal information, simply don't allow kids under 13.
COPPA was written back in 1998 -- long before Facebook -- to protect kids from revealing information to be used for marketing purposes and also to reduce their risk of exploitation. But, as the study's co-author danah boyd (her legal name is all lower case) pointed out in my CBS News / CNET interview (click to listen to MP3), "If you want to participate in social media, it's not that you can participate without giving over information, that simply is not possible." The whole purpose of Facebook is to share and you need to provide at least some personal information to use the service. The solution, said boyd, "is not to make it harder for them to lie."
In June, I blogged that Facebook ought to allow children under 13, because I think that it would be a lot safer to let them on in an age appropriate manner than to collectively bury our heads in the sand and pretend that they're not there. If this were the case, it should be accompanied by all sorts of parental controls as well as greatly increased privacy settings. I would also argue that the children to given an ad-free environment and that, of course, no information be used to market to them now or in the future. There should be a limit on who they can communicate with, but they should be allowed to use the service to interact with family members and others approved by their parents. As my ConnectSafely.org colleague Anne Collier pointed out in a NetFamilyNews post, there are plenty of good reasons why we should close the "communications gap," by allowing kids under 13 to communicate via popular social networking sites.
Facebook has indicated that it has no immediate plans to challenge COPPA and has no announced plans for finding a COPPA compliant way to welcome pre-teens. So, in the mean time, it will continue to block those who enter a date of birth that indicates they're below 13 and continue to remove the account of those who they catch after the account has been established.
The Federal Trade Commission is currently reviewing COPPA and is seeking comments from the public about proposed rule changes which, currently, do not include removing the under-13 restriction.
For more, see danah boyd's post Why Parents Help Tweens Violate Facebook's 13+ Rule and Anne Collier's Kids lying to Facebook, not their parents: Study.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebookand other Internet companies.