It's a question I've been pondering a lot lately. Technically, children under the age of 13 are not allowed to join Facebook. But according to a Consumer Reports in May, 7.5 million children 12 and younger are already on the site. Currently, federal law prohibits websites from collecting personal data from children without parental permission. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, as it is more commonly known, has been in effect since 1998, but has not been updated since.
Protecting a minor from joining a social site is almost impossible, from a logistical point of view. The methods of verification include obtaining a parent's credit card information, digital signature, signed and mailed form, or a phone call from the parent. Since the overhead for such information can be expensive, most major websites, including Google and Facebook have gotten around the restriction by simply not allowing children under the age of 13 to join their sites. When you sign up for the site, all you have to do is to provide a birthdate that signifies that you are at least 13 years of age. As many of us know, it's pretty easy to lie about your age online, given that there is little online verification of such data.
When Google+ first launched, some kids found themselves losing access to their email accounts because Google+ asks for your date of birth. +Martin Sutherland found out the hard way when his son, Alex, who is 10 years old, signed up for Google+, and immediately found himself locked out of his Gmail account for age violations.
Conversely, the policy also created problems for people who were actually of age, but may have accidentally entered the incorrect birth date in their profile. To re-enable a locked Google Account, you can verify your age with a credit card transaction or a copy of a government ID. This solution does not help kids who are underage, but may have been using Gmail for a while. Many parents may not even be aware that kids aren't allowed to use Gmail, especially when Google promotes Gmail with video ads like Dear Sophie.
Google also has Google Apps for Education, which allows schools to provide Google Accounts for primary and secondary students, many of whom might want separate, personal Google Accounts for themselves. They might not realize that this service is compliant with COPPA, with no advertising, and uses Postini to protect their data.
Facebook has received a lot of criticism in the past for not protecting minors from sexual predators, and being too easy to access. Facebook has worked hard to kick sex offenders off its network, but it's still very easy for kids to sign up for Facebook. If you're a parent, and you discover that your child has been using Facebook, Facebook encourages you to take action first to delete the account.
(Side note to people who wish to delete their Facebook accounts: apparently this link will not let you reactivate your account.)
Last month, Facebook formed a political action committee called FB PAC, for the purpose of contributing to candidates in upcoming elections. Although Facebook has not indicated which candidates they would support, +Mark Zuckerberg has indicated in the past that he thinks current laws and regulations concerning minors on social networks are too restrictive, and is willing to fight to repeal COPPA, at least in part.
Meanwhile, protecting the online privacy of kids may be the only thing that Congress can agree on at this point. +Mark Zuckerberg may have an uphill battle if he's planning to fight COPPA. House Representatives Edward Markey and Joe Barton introduced a bill in May titled "Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011", which would require online services to provide extra security and privacy protections for minors who use their sites. Citing the disturbing number of data leaks by major web sites, Markey said, "When it comes to kids and their use of the Internet, it is particularly important that stringent privacy protections are applied so that children do not have their online behavior tracked or their personal information collected or disclosed."
It's impossible to keep your kids' information 100% safe, but there are precautionary measures you can take. Not surprisingly, you can and should take many of these same precautionary measures for yourself. This guide is meant for those of you who decide to allow your kids to use social networking sites like Facebook and Google+.
- Don't allow your kids to use their real names online. Encourage them to adopt a handle and/or pseudonym for use online. Although both Facebook and Google+ have "real name" policies in place, there's no realistic way for them to verify legal names. As long as the name is two words and sounds American, you won't have a problem with signing up. Twitter does not have a real name policy in place, and you can use a handle for your username.
- Lock down privacy settings on any account you use. Always go to the account settings page to modify them, and do not allow people who don't know your children to see what they post.
- Educate your kids about privacy online, or the lack thereof. I cannot stress how important this is. If you don't want your kids to be posting personal pictures of themselves doing stupid things in public, they have to understand why. They need to understand that when something like a blog post or a Facebook status is made public, anyone can see and read it and comment, including people from places like 4chan.
- Continue to educate yourself about changing online environments. Unfortunately, many of the most egregious lapses in judgment come from parents themselves. Don't be these people.