News: Should Kids Be Allowed to Use Facebook and Google+?

Should Kids Be Allowed to Use Facebook and Google+?

Should Kids Be Allowed to Use Facebook and Google+?

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. 

How Google+ Handles the Underage

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 Wants Your Kids' 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

"Do Not Track" Legislation in the Works

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."

How to Protect Your Kids' Information Online

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.
Photo by Paul Mayne

8 Comments

No. One word will suffice.

No. Absolutely not. Completely agreed, BirdandBear.

Children do not have the awareness to keep themselves safe online. When prompted to give information and left to their own devices, they often give it away. Also, children (generally) do not lie as a first response. Children may be taught not to talk to strangers, but the computer takes out the awkwardness. People on facebook do not seem like strangers until you have been trained they are equally if not more dangerous. It is difficult to impart abstract concepts like those that fill the virtual world of the internet to children. If full grown educated adults fall to social engineering plots, how could a child hope to defend themselves online. Do you see a reason children should actually be using social networking sites despite these risks?

Couldn't have said it better myself. Completely agree with every word. It truly irritates me to accidentally come across a profile on Facebook that is obviously younger than the age limit described in the Terms of Service. I know not every adult has a credit card to use for verification purposes, as I am one of them, but I think there should be at least a dedicated team constantly searching for and removing profiles that are in violation of the Terms of Service. It's simply in the best interest of the kids, and gives that much more comfort and control over their kids usage of the internet and social networking sites like Facebook.

Eh, I'm kind of agnostic about the whole thing. 1. I know of several parents who allow their underage kids to get email or join social network services, but they do the following: request the kids' passwords, require that they friend the parents, and they monitor their kids online usage, in the same manner as outlined by Martin Sutherland. 2. I myself started using the Internet pretty young, and with zero guidance, zero adult supervision (this is not to knock my parents - they were out working hard because they had to, and they are less literate than I am in English), and I managed to come out okay, and I daresay, even better for it. The fact that kids may get themselves into trouble online is not sufficient reason to me to ban them from using it. I also think it's unrealistic at this point, especially when many parents let their kids use products like iPads (something I don't think I would do). I think we need better resources for parents to educate themselves and their kids about safety online, and make online safety a priority in education overall.

Well, I guess some Googlers don't let their kids use computers: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html, which I think is counter-productive in the long run.

'm not saying that kids shouldn't use the internet, to the contrary, I think they should. Just not social networking sites. The first site I frequented as a child was neopets, and I started doing so around the age of 6. Sites like neopets are marketed for children, but still provide many learning resources. I learned to code HTML there for instance. They have all kinds of rules regarding privacy and they restrict communication between members to limit the information that can be shared. Sites like this provide a safer and more secured environment. They allow children to learn about the internet, e-security, privacy, and gather the skills they need to be effective online without the risks involved in facebook or google+. Too much too fast is more likely to hurt than to help, and I'm not sure why anyone would risk it when you can learn just as much in a safer environment.

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