Should children be allowed to use Facebook? Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg certainly thinks so. At a summit on innovation in education in May 2011, Zuckerberg said he wants younger kids to be allowed on Facebook. The current COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) doesn’t allow websites to collect personal information from anyone under the age of 13.
“That 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.”
His comments sparked a national debate on the age-appropriateness of social networking sites for children, particularly Facebook, which the majority of Americans use. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that 7.5 million Facebook users are younger than 13, despite the site’s age requirements. And 5 million are under the age of 10, out of 20 million minors who actively used Facebook last year. The numbers came from parents who knew that their underaged children use Facebook–which means that the actual number could be a lot higher.
Facebook’s response to the report is as follows:
“Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don’t circumvent a system or lie about their age,” the social network said in a written statement. “We appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online.”
The company’s policy states that they will delete any account that they know belongs to an underaged user; to verify age, they ask for a birthdate upon sign-up. But some, including Jeff Fox (tech editor of Consumer Reports) don’t believe the company has enough strategies in place to combat user fraud. “We all know how bright these folks are that run it. I cannot believe that they cannot devise better systems for preventing kids under 13 than just asking for a birth date.”
Time magazine cites a number of examples of teen lack of self-judgment that may be worrisome for parents of Facebook users. For example, a teen in New Hampshire wrote on Facebook that she wished Osama bin Ladin had killed her math teacher. The student was then suspended for five days. The Consumers’ Union says that young children don’t understand how important it is to self-censor on the internet. Ioana Rusu, regulatory counsel for the union, wrote: “We urge Facebook to strengthen its efforts to identify and terminate the accounts of users under 13 years of age, and also to implement more effective-age verification methods for users signing up for new accounts,” in a letter to Zuckerberg.
On the other hand, some argue that Facebook can be a productive learning tool for young children, as well as a means for healthy self-expression. Henry Jenkins, a researcher at the University of Southern California, believes that social media can be used to inspire collaborative, engaged learning among youth.
Regardless, PBS concedes that kids will have to learn what their “digital footprint” is also immediately after they begin online activities. Eric Sheniger, principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, says that students need to be taught. “We can’t fault kids for doing something wrong on Facebook or Twitter because we’re not teaching them. We need to have digital citizenship in schools.”