Since its launch in the mid 2000s, social media site Facebook has rapidly been setting the world alight, with many articles, documentaries, a stock listing and even a Hollywood movie being created. At the time of writing, the site boasts almost 1.3 billion individual profiles. But how many of these 1.3 billion profiles are owned by children? And what harm could be caused to these children and their access to the social media giant?
Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities requires users of the site to be at least 13 years old (and even older, in some jurisdictions). Many users are younger than this, with either their parents assisting in setting up an account, or else the child creating an account with an incorrect date of birth, to get past sign up restrictions. According to a May 2011 Consumer Reports survey, there were 7.5 million children under 13 with accounts and 5 million users under 10. Given the exponential rise in the number of users since 2011, this estimate would be significantly higher today.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has claimed in the past that he wishes there was no limit in the first place. According to CNN, he stated at an education summit in California in 2011, “That [the age restriction] will be a fight we take on at some point…My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age. Because of the restrictions we haven’t even begun this learning process. If they’re lifted then we’d start to learn what works. We’d take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger kids] are safe…”
This need for precaution seems to have been taken on board. One of the major criticisms of Facebook over the last few years has been its privacy settings. Indeed, Facebook has encountered controversy over its privacy policies in the past and is now facing additional scrutiny from the US Federal Trade Commission, which is conducting an inquiry into other proposed changes to the company’s privacy policies, which would give Facebook automatic permission to take a user’s post, including those made by teen users, and turn it into an advertisement broadcast to anyone who could have seen the original post.
Facebook have recently announced changes to the default privacy settings for users aged 13 to 17, which are aimed to limit the number of people who can see the information, photos and videos they post.
Until this recent change took place, the default setting was for “friends of friends.” This meant that whatever a teen user of the site posted, whether that be status updates, photos and videos, or even comments as to their high score on Candy Crush, these could be accessed by people with no apparent connection to that person, other than they are a friend of a friend. The new default setting is “friends only”.
However, the recent changes also allow teenagers to post their updates so that they can be seen by anybody. Facebook describe this change as giving teenagers more choice, although cynics among us may argue that this choice equals opportunity for Facebook, as the more public information advertisers have about those more impressionable users, the better they are able to target their pitches.
If Facebook’s current privacy laws allow 13 year olds, or even those who claim to be as old as 13, to choose to make any posts public, and open for viewing by anybody. And if Mark Zuckerberg’s wish is granted, and the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – which mandates that websites that collect information about users (like Facebook) are not allowed to sign on anyone under the age of 13 — is changed, it may be that posts of children under the age of 13 would be publicly available.
So long as it is carefully monitored and controlled, Facebook IS arguably safe for our children. But the risk of cyber-bulling and exploitation is a very real one, that parents should be aware of and that children and parents alike should be educated on.