Facebook may soon let pre-teens have (legitimate) accounts

kids-internet-facebook

Updated with comment from Facebook: 9:45am PT.

Did you know that children under the age of 13 are technically not allowed to have a Facebook account? That rule may come as a surprise to some parents, given that millions of ‘under-13’ children in the US already have a profile. Equally surprising: this rule may soon no longer be in place. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook is considering changes that would allow children under the age of 13 to have legitimate accounts on the social network.

The changes, detailed to WSJ by “people who have spoken with Facebook executives about the technology, would reportedly allow pre-teens to have profiles linked to their parents’ accounts. This would give parents the ability to monitor and control who their children accept as “friends” on the social network, as well as control which applications their children may access.

Facebook’s ban on users under 13 is mandated under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which tightly restricts what types of private information websites may collect from minors under 13-years-old. Pre-teens regularly circumvent this rule, however, simply by entering a false age. According to Consumer Reports, approximately 7.5 million ‘under-13s’ have Facebook accounts. More than 5 million of those are under the age of 10. Other studies have shown that even children under the age of six have Facebook profiles.

For some, such changes to Facebook’s functionality would come as a welcome relief. With so many kids already on the site, Facebook would serve parents well by giving them a better way to monitor their children’s social network activities, especially in an age when cyberbullying is becoming an ever-increasing problem. One elementary school educator told us that physical fights over things said on Facebook are a regular occurrence at her school. And a number of under-13-year-old girls had accounts claiming they were college-age, which creates a whole other set of problems.

Then there’s the issue of Facebook’s motivation: officially allowing children under 13 to have accounts would presumably allow the site to tap into a currently underrepresented demographic. And according to WSJ’s sources, Facebook is building in ways to make money off these young users.

As WSJ reports: “The under-13 features could enable Facebook and its partners to charge parents for games and other entertainment accessed by their children, the people said.”

Another problem: some child advocates say children should not have social network accounts at all, therefore; Facebook should not make it easier for them to create such accounts.

“We don’t have the proper science and social research to evaluate the potential pros and cons that social-media platforms are doing to teenagers,” said James Styer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a child-advocacy group, in an interview with WSJ. “The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to our request for comment on the WSJ report or an purportedly impending new ‘under-13’ feature. [Update with comment below.] And even if Facebook is testing such a system, it does not mean the company will ever officially release it to the public. That said, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said in the past that his company plans to address the situation eventually.

“That will be a fight we take on at some point,” said Zuckerberg during an interview with Fortune, while discussing education features on Facebook. “My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.”

Update: A Facebook spokesperson sent us the following statement: “Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services.  We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.”

The spokesperson also added the following “background” information:

  • We have nothing to announce.  
  • We are in a phase of learning and dialogue around this important issue and have not made any decisions about how we will proceed
  • As the WSJ also pointed out, some things we test never see the light of day
  • Studies highlight that kids are on fb and their parents are helping them.  This is a well documented issue – we cannot ignore it
  • We have put in place different mechanisms to keep under 13s off the site but that it is often difficult especially when they are aided by their parents. Above all, we are interested in making sure that everyone has a safe and secure experience on the site.
  • There is increasing pressure from regulators to do something about this issue.  In fact, in-coming NAAG President has stated clearly, both to us and the WSJ, that he  wants us to bear in mind younger and younger kids and help them use online services safely. 
  • If we did decide to do something like this we would do so responsibly, and under the steer of our SAB and others
  • We are mindful of COPPA, hence our formal response to it 
  • This is not about revenue: not keeping kids safe, or facing regulatory issues are the focus
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