Over 7 million kids are lying about their age to join Facebook.
It’s called “Smash or Pass.” Boys and girls alike can submit a photo of themselves or someone else to any number of smash-or-pass pages on Facebook. Others then stop by and say whether they would like to “smash” (have sex with) or “pass” (turn down) this person based on the submitted photo. As you can imagine, profanity and swarms of other crude comments follow.
This is just a sample of the adult content and culture of Facebook. And yet a recent survey from Consumer Reports indicates that 7.5 million active Facebook users are younger than 13 years of age.
Getting Around Facebook’s Age Minimum
According to federal COPPA law—the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act—unless there is parental consent, websites are not allowed to collect someone’s personal information if they are under 13 years of age. Verifying parental consent can be costly and involve some paperwork, so most online social networks like Facebook simply do not allow children younger than 13 to use their services. Facebook’s statement of “Rights and Responsibilities” states clearly: “You will not use Facebook if you are under 13.”
But all you have to do to get around this age minimum is add some years to your birthday when creating your online profile. And a recent report shows many kids are doing just that—some 2.5 million kids 10-12 years old are on Facebook, and another 5 million under 10. More disturbingly, the same report indicates that parents are aware of this and they do very little monitoring of what their kids are doing on their profiles. Only 10% of parents of kids 10 and under had frank discussions with children about appropriate online behaviors and threats.
One Network for Adults and Children: A Recipe for Disaster
“Allowing 500 million people, children and adults, onto one social network, where anything goes, will only exacerbate the online safety and privacy issues that are already affecting our children on a large scale,” says Mary Kay Hoal, founder of YourSphere.com, a kids-only social network. “This, to me, is a recipe for disaster.”
Allowing your child to use Facebook is similar to allowing them to use Google: the sky’s the limit on what can be searched for. “You, or a child for that matter, can search for something as simple as ‘Adults Only’ in the Facebook search bar and find discussion threads filled with public requests for sex,” Ms. Hoal reports. “Considering the blunt curiosity of children, they might use a more direct search term like ‘boobs.’ This will result in several pages filled with inappropriate photos and videos, as well as links to pornography websites.”
Activities like “Smash or Pass” are only the beginning of this dangerous cocktail. “It’s safe to say that the culture of Facebook and the content on Facebook go hand-in-hand,” Ms. Hoal notes. “Facebook users make Facebook what it is today. Since the users are mostly adults, then it’s fair to say that the culture is mostly adult-oriented.”
But my child isn’t like that…
Consumer Reports says one reason why parents of young children are unconcerned about the use of Facebook is because they believe their pre-teens are less likely than a teenager to take risks. This may help to explain why only 18% of parents were their young child’s “friend” on Facebook (compare this to 62% of parents of 13- to 14-year-olds). Parents of younger kids do not feel their child will do anything too concerning.
Mary Kay Hoal’s daughter was a typical 12-year-old who insisted on having an online profile. But Ms. Hoal was not the typical mother. Knowing most social networks were created by and meant for adults, she immersed herself in the world of social networking so she could better understand its draw as well as its dangers.
What she has found over the years both delights and frightens her. Online social networking can bring many benefits to kids—education, connectivity, creativity. But she also saw teens and pre-teens being exposed to a free-for-all adult culture without safeguards.
And online privacy settings are no guarantee. “Configuring the privacy settings on Facebook is no easy task, so there may be overlooked privacy loopholes in a user’s profile if they don’t take the time to go through every single option available to them,” Hoal reports. And how many parents sit down with their children to look through all the privacy settings anyway?
Even if parents trust their 9-year-olds to not look for inappropriate material on Facebook, often inappropriate content comes looking for them. Even with privacy settings in place, Facebook users can receive friend requests from strangers and invitations to check out adult-oriented applications. You may trust your kids, but do you trust all your kids’ friends—let alone the rest of the world?
Lying is Lying is Lying
Online dangers aside, parents who knowingly allow their children to create a Facebook profile are either unaware of the age minimum or are encouraging their children to lie. “Parents don’t teach their children to lie to get what they want—whether to join a team, a school, receive a gift—so sending a message that it is okay to lie to join Facebook sends the wrong message and compromises what a parent has taught their child.”
danah boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft, says one of the reasons why the 13-year-old-minimum law was drafted in the first place was so parents would need to be more constructively involved in their children’s online lives. So encouraging lying not only compromises a family’s value system, it also shortcuts the reason for the law’s existence in the first place.
When Your Pre-Teen Wants to Be on Facebook
Ms. Hoal can relate to the pressure a parent feels to let their kid get a Facebook account. “As a parent that struggled with an underage child wanting to join an adult-intended network, I can tell you that either the children are going behind their parents’ backs (this happened to my husband and me despite the fact that there are family rules and consequences), or parents haven’t had the opportunity to learn about the health and safety issues that their children are susceptible to on Facebook.”
She offers some timely advice to parents: “If your child is under the age of 13, then just say no. Children need to learn that there are things they need to wait for.”
Choose to point your pre-teen in the direction of new social networks meant specifically for their age group. There are many to choose from. Nearly three years ago Ms. Hoal spearheaded the creation of YourSphere.com, a social network meant only for minors. Your child doesn’t have to pretend to be 13 to join, and its editorial and law enforcement teams works to keep the site safe and clean for all kids who join.
Chances are, merely suggesting your child use an age-appropriate network may not work. After all, being older than 19, you’re ancient in their mind, and therefore any idea you have is probably not cool. Instead, Ms. Hoal suggests you ask your tween to simply give you feedback about a new social network you’ve heard about. “It’s a non-threatening approach. Typically, there isn’t a child/teen that will turn away from the opportunity to tell their parent their idea stinks.” She reports many parents have taken this approach, and as a result, their children have found they really love YourSphere after they’ve had time to play around with it.
Still, when your child turns 13, they may want to be on Facebook like all their friends. Diligent parents should keep in mind that turning 13 doesn’t magically enable someone to handle all the responsibility of using an adult social network.