In your honest and totally unbiased opinion, what is the right age for someone to be allowed to sign up for a Facebook account?
Currently, in keeping with the United State’s 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), Facebook only allows people aged 13 and above to sign up for its service. Yet, a study this year by Consumer Reports found that about 7.5 million children have Facebook accounts.
What’s with all these kids wanting to get on Facebook anyway?
Well, if you’re anybody and everybody in school, being online and socially connected is something you strife for. When I was younger, this came in the form of IRC (Internet Relay Chat) although there were less rules back then. All you had to do was learn how to download and install a piece of software.
Today, the social network du jour is Facebook. And even before Facebook, kids have found a way to make use of blogs and other social networks to express themselves and connect with friends outside of school.
Without a doubt, COPPA was an immensely important act in its time. In theory, at least, it protects children from unwittingly divulging sensitive, private information to strangers, especially those with malicious intent.
However, as the latest Consumer Reports study has shown, children are fast getting around this through the means of fake accounts, and very little can be done to stop them. In an attempt to keep up with the times, a bill is being mooted in California to allow parents of kids aged 18 and below the right to request for the removal of information on their child’s social network.
Explaining why the bill was proposed, California state senator Ellen Corbett explained that social networks today were “encouraging the disclosure of information that was formerly discreet (like location) and to enable the sharing of information even when not sitting in front of the traditional computer (like mobile phones).”
This senator is, at least, partly clued into what’s happening in the social space today. Location and mobile are certainly game-changing elements. Parents don’t want their precious children checking-in to school on Facebook on their mobiles, especially if they’ve got strangers following them on Facebook.
But I think the need goes beyond making up laws. Yes, it’s an important building block to give parents legal rights to take action, but to truly protect young people online, education remains the key.
So, in a roundabout way, we come back to the original question of this article.
In an age where social media is becoming a part of our everyday lives, so much so that you see young children toting iPhones in school, it’s hard to think that the law will catch up with the practical reality of the situation.
Rather, it falls on the parents to understand the technology and to teach their children to use it responsibly, in the same way I learned how to be responsible with the telephone. I remember my mum warning me not to give away our home address or even to say my name to a stranger I didn’t recognise in case they called the house phone.
Similarly, we need to master the Internet and understand the dynamic effect social networking has on our public/private information dichotomy. I think there’s no better way to teach kids then letting them learn from a young age.
Also, it is not as if there has not been a precedent. Children-friendly and targeted social networks have existed for quite a while, Disney’s Toontown being an excellent example (http://toontown.go.com). However, there’s always this spark in all of us to do what the adults are doing, isn’t there?
Hence, the curiosity for Facebook.
So, should Facebook create a “Facebook for Kids” product? Or perhaps create a special class of accounts for minors aged below 13? I think a “supplementary” account for minors would be a great way to address this issue.
Parents can sign-up for their children and attach the “supplementary” account for their children to theirs. Facebook can then give parents special controls as – for example, information privacy settings come under parents control. This allows parents to approve what others can or cannot see.
Perhaps even giving parents control as to what times an account can be logged into might be a good idea, so children can log and post on Facebook only during the times their parents specify. And of course, once the child turns 13, they automatically gets full autonomy of their account.
The point is – social networking is here to stay. And whatever our reservations or issues with the technology, we’re either going to have to learn to deal with them, or falter in our progress.
q David Lian is a father of one and is looking for ways to keep his daughter out of trouble online, if he’s able to. Tweet him feedback or suggestions at www.twitter.com/davidlian.