First of all, it’s not an age arbitrarily chosen by Facebook. According to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), websites collecting information from a general-audience population must receive guardian permission to gather data from children 12-years-old and younger.
Often, websites, Facebook included, choose to make the legal age of usage 13-years and older to bypass the litigious headaches that parental consent incurs. But as I’m sure you know, rules are made to be broken. And not surprisingly, countless tweens (8-12-year-olds), and at times their parents, turn a blind eye to Facebook’s age policy.
Parents who knowingly let their pre-adolescent youngsters use Facebook may say, "I’ve fixed the privacy settings, my child’s okay." It’s fantastic that those moms and dads have taken steps to protect their children online, but the service frequently changes its privacy policies. That makes it difficult to continuously adjust the settings that create a secure, highly regulated "bubble shield" around the child.
And of course there are a lot of unsuspecting parents out there whose underage children are sailing the Facebook seas without a captain, compass or lifeboat. Even if their young ones strictly stick to social games labeled "harmless," like FarmVille, they’re unaware of the types of relationships their children are building in forums and with "friends."
Anyone who’s created a Facebook account knows that "proving" you are at least 13 years of age is as simple as checking a box. So you can imagine how difficult it is to find those wily tweens who are feverishly posting pictures, taking quizzes and making friends through the service. However, the website does take measures to find those young ones and remove them from the system.
Recently Mozelle Thompson, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, told the Australian Federal Parliament’ cyber-safety committee that the social networking giant deletes 20,000 accounts each day for age violations. Although an impressive number, he went on to say that the tools employed to find underage users are not foolproof.
Thompson’s admission substantiates the Pew Internet & American Life Project results stating that 46 percent of 12-year-olds surveyed in the U.S. use social networks. That sounds like a high percentage, but the number makes sense when you consider that children meet and connect emotionally through their digital devices. The virtual world is now and forevermore injected into daily interpersonal relationships, and nobody knows that better than our blossoming digital natives.
Facebook is an arena intended for the older set. Younger children are not developmentally ready to navigate the scrutiny and politics that often take place in this social space. Teens and adults prove to have a hard enough time with it themselves, as evidenced by the daily news.
That doesn’t mean parents should wait to introduce their boys and girls to the concept of digital citizenship. Instead, they should carefully choose online environments that are specifically created with tweens in mind.
Currently, there are plenty of fun and safe social networks for children on the Web. The level of control, permission and oversight needed to play in these realms makes them more secure than the other PG-13-rated spaces. More importantly, getting your children set up on age-appropriate sites is a great way to start talking about the boons and burdens of social media.
Remember: Don’t close doors—just guide your children through the ones that lead to safe and healthy relationships online. Statistics prove they want to use social media; it only makes sense that they learn through you.
As president of iKeepSafe.org, Marsali Hancock speaks nationally and internationally on digital citizenship issues like cyber-safety, security and ethics/responsibility. She is also the creator of Generation Safe—New Media Mentor for Digital Citizenship, a tool that empowers school districts to cultivate healthy digital school climates.