Out of Control Policy Blog

Let Parent's Decide: What a Concept!

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wants to lift the minimum age restriction for social networking, which Facebook's terms of service, in line with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, currently sets at 13.

The immediate reaction in Congress, of course, was outrage followed by an interrogatory letter to Zuckerberg from Reps. Ed Markey and Joe Barton, Washington's self-appointed bi-partisan tag team for online in loco parentis (just Google "Barton Markey Internet"), demanding he explain himself.

But given the growth of social media, the time is ripe to revisit these age restrictions, and even to ask whether they are working at all. Research indicates that there are 7.5 million Facebook users under 13, most of whom are there with their parents knowledge and/or assistance. This itself begs the question as to how effective COPPA's age restrictions are.

Last year, a team lead by danah boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft and a research assistant director in the Media, Culture and Communication Department at New York University New York University, found that:

  • 55 percent of parents of 12-year-olds know their children have Facebook accounts, with 82 percent of those knowing when their kids signed up, and 76 percent assisting them in the process.
  • 36 percent of all parents surveyed (1,007 U.S. parents with children 10 to 14 living with them, from July 5 through 14) said their kids joined Facebook before turning 13, and 68 percent of those also helped their children create their accounts on the social network.
  • 53 percent of parents think Facebook has a minimum age requirement, while 35 percent believe it is only a recommendation.
  • 78 percent think violating the minimum-age limits for online services is acceptable.

(H/T to David Cohen at AllFacebook.com for bullet points)

This last point is telling. Given the unenforceable age rule, many kids' first lesson about the Internet is that rules and regulations can be safely flouted with a wink from Mom or Dad. This is not the best grounding for dealing with weightier ethical questions about online behavior that will pop up down the line--from cyberbullying to Internet piracy. Unfortunately, the government loves setting arbitrary age points--for drinking, driving, voting, marriage and Facebook membership--when in nature, maturity is not neatly so age-specific. But in light of the pervasiveness of online media at this point in time, age 13 may be too old for children to be officially introduced to the mechanisms of social networking. Certainly many parents think so. I'll only say in response to concerns about privacy and information collection, it's no secret how social media sites work. Parents have all they need to make an informed decision about the degree their kids use social media--and ultimately have the most influence and control.

Reasonable parents may disagree, and what might be suitable for your 11- or 12-year old may not be suitable for mine. The difference is that Facebook is willing to respect your position as a parent, while the government is not.


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