A newly published survey by Consumer Reports reveals that millions of Facebook users are actually below the social network’s minimum age limit, reports CNet. According to Facebook’s terms of service, no one under the age of 13 is permitted to have an account. By Consumer Reports’ count, about 7.5 million have slipped beneath the bar.
The survey corroborates evidence found in a 2010 study my security firm McAfee, which showed that about 37 percent of 10 to 12 year old are on Facebook. In total, about 20 million Facebook users are under the age of 18.
“Using Facebook presents children and their friends and family with safety, security and privacy risks,” said Consumer Reports in a press statement. “In the past year, the use of Facebook has exposed more than five million online U.S. households to some type of abuse including virus infections, identity theft, and–for a million children–bullying.”
In an attempt to preemptively extinguish the inevitable fires of outrage from parents, Facebook said before the study’s release that “recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don’t circumvent a system or lie about their age.” The company added that “we appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates, and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online.”
While critics may accuse Facebook of skirting its responsibility to keep young children off its site, the social network’s recommendations that parents teach their kids which websites are appropriate, and monitor their online activity to ensure they aren’t doing something they shouldn’t echos the findings of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), which worked with MySpace in 2009 to find out if age verification on websites actually works. (Hint: It doesn’t.)
According to Larry Magin, who served as a member of the ISTTF, Facebook’s requirement that no one under the age of 13 be allowed to use the site stems from regulations outlined in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was enacted in 1998. According to COPPA, websites must receive parental permission before it can allow anyone under age 13 to log in.
Since it is so technically difficult for websites to keep pre-teens from lying about their young ages, Consumer Reports recommends that parents monitor their children’s Web use with the help of spying tools like SafetyWeb or SocialShield, which keeps track of Internet activity.
For further advice about children and Facebook, check out the free e-book, “A Parent’s Guide to Facebook” here.