This week, Facebook announced that it is considering allowing children under the age of 13 to use its service. We know that if it does allow those younger than 13 to have accounts, Facebook will be required to give direct notice to parents about information collection practices and must obtain verifiable parental consent because of the requirements of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Up to this point, Facebook has chosen to abide by the COPPA requirements by requiring that users be at least 13 years old (presumably because verifying parental consent would be too difficult). The Facebook age requirement has been useless as researchers uncovered last year that not only are there 7.5 million children under 13 on Facebook, but that the parents of many of these children helped them circumvent the age limit.
Here are four reasons to be wary of allowing your children who are younger than 13 on Facebook:
Safety: I think that the fear spread by luddites, the media, and even some “privacy experts” telling you there are strangers waiting to prey on your children on Facebook is blown way out of proportion. Are there reasons to be concerned about your child’s safety online? Yes, absolutely; however, it’s important to understand that cases of strangers taking advantage of children through Facebook are few and far between.
Advertising: Andrew Lewis famously said “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product…” Advertising to our children already begins at a really early age. The marketing that happens on Facebook is subtle; so subtle in fact that most adults don’t realize it or know how it works. The fact that Facebook tracks what you do on their site as well as on those integrated with Facebook (think of all of the sites with “Like” buttons) should be of great concern to you as a parent. Indeed, allowing children who are under 13 to join Facebook means they will enter a super-charged marketing environment much earlier than they otherwise would.
Developmental appropriateness: I don’t think it’s developmentally appropriate for younger children to be on Facebook. For instance, an eight year old has only started to understand the rudimentary foundations of mature interpersonal relationships/friendships. Making these relationships public introduces added stressors and pressure that children need to work out when they are developmentally ready for it, not when interacting online publically with peers of various ages. Plus, research shows us that miscommunications happen frequently online because of an inability to correctly interpret tone. Younger children are less able to deal with the emotional “fallout” of conflicts that happen online. When they happen in the real world, there are usually adults there to help guide them through it.
Mistakes: There is no undo button on Facebook. Children should be allowed to make the mistakes they need to make in order to grow, learn, and develop without having a permanent record of said mistakes. Think back to when you were younger- I’m sure there are a few (maybe more) things you did that you’re not proud of today. Now imagine if there was a permanent, un-erasable record of those things. Sure you can click “delete” on content that is shared. But once shared, the damage is already done because content can be saved and reshared by others. Just ask any politician with a Twitter account who has tried to erase an unpopular or offensive tweet.
Reynol Junco is a social media scholar who investigates the impact of social technologies on college students. Rey is a professor in the department of Academic Development and Counseling at Lock Haven University and a Lab Mentor for the Youth and Media Lab at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Follow Rey on Twitter and read about his research on his blog.