Common Sense About Kids, Facebook, and The Net

Rumors are swirling that Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking platform, is considering allowing children under the age of 13 to create accounts on its site. Devising a workable system to allow kids online legally will be difficult — and it will never be foolproof — but Facebook really has no choice but to try.

This article was originally published in Forbes

Rumors are swirling that Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking platform, is considering allowing children under the age of 13 to create accounts on its site. Devising a workable system to allow kids online legally will be difficult — and it will never be foolproof — but Facebook really has no choice but to try. Many kids under 13 already are on the site in violation of Facebook’s current terms of service as well as a federal law that says those minors need parental permission before they get online. A Consumer Reports survey last year estimated that “of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million of them were younger than 13.”

Some policymakers and child safety groups are already decrying the suggestion that Facebook should let young kids online, but their opposition is misguided and counter-productive. More and more youngsters are migrating online with each passing year, often with their parent’s help. That’s unsurprisingly because social networking sites are really no different than the town squares, public parks, or shopping malls of the past. Kids will be present in those environments not just because they want to be but because, more often than not, their parents or guardians want them to be there as well.

That fact hasn’t stopped the child safety advocacy group Common Sense Media from crafting an online petition demanding that Facebook give up any thought of letting the little ones join the site. “There is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13,” the petition insists. “Indeed, there are very legitimate concerns about privacy, as well as its impact on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.” Common Sense Media doesn’t offer any evidence to substantiate those claims, but one can sympathize with some of the general worries.

Regardless, Common Sense Media’s approach to the issue is short-sighted. Calling for a zero-tolerance, prohibitionist policy toward kids on Facebook (and interactive media more generally) is tantamount to a bury-your-head-in-sand approach to child safety. Again, younger kids are increasingly online, often because their parents allow or even encourage it. To make sure they get online safely and remain safe, we’ll need a different approach than Common Sense Media’s unworkable “just-say-no” model.

“Whether we like it or not, millions of children are using Facebook,” notes fellow Forbes contributor Larry Magid, “and since there doesn’t seem to be a universally effective way to get them off the service, the best and safest strategy would be to provide younger children with a safe, secure and private experience that allows them to interact with verified friends and family members without having to lie about their age.”

That’s the smart call. As I’ve noted here before, instead of panicking about online safety and privacy, we need to assimilate children gradually into online environments and use mentoring strategies to make sure they understand how to cope with the challenges they will face in the digital age. Teaching our kids smarter online hygiene and “Netiquette” is vital. “Think before you click” should be lesson #1. “Clean up after yourself,” should be the second. That is, kids should be encouraged to delete unnecessary online information occasionally and be extra cautious about how much sensitive information they put online to begin with.

But that doesn’t seem good enough for Common Sense Media. Not only have they demanded Facebook abandon any thought of letting youngsters online, but the organization suggest a federal regulatory approach might be needed as well. Their favored vehicle is the “Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011,” which was introduced last year by Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas). That measure would not ban kids from Facebook or other online sites but would instead expand the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), which already mandates certain online-privacy protections for children under the age of 13.

The goal of COPPA was to enhance parents’ involvement in their children’s online activities and better safeguard kids’ personal information online. COPPA is a complicated law, however, and its parental consent provisions have proven difficult to enforce. It has also resulted in some unintended consequences. A recent study documented how the law has encouraged many kids — often with the help of their parents — to lie about their ages online and evade age-based restrictions. The authors concluded that COPPA “inadvertently undermines parents’ ability to make choices and protect their children’s data.”

Legislators don’t appear to be listening. In addition to expanding COPPA, the Markey-Barton bill calls for other new regulations such as a mandate that sites create “Eraser Buttons” to make it easier for kids to delete online information they may later find embarrassing. The Eraser Button concept is modeled loosely on a similar idea being considered in the European Union, a so-called “right to be forgotten” online.

While expanded regulation will appeal to some, it’s unlikely such rules will keep kids off Facebook or other websites. Importantly, new these regulations could end up in the courts if they lead to full-blown online age verification mechanism for kids and adults alike. Earlier legislative efforts to impose mandatory online age verification lead to protracted courts battles that ultimately blocked all such mandates on First Amendment grounds.

The Eraser Button proposal would also prompt legal challenges. The idea sounds great in theory, but the notion is riddled with complex legal and technical enforcement questions. Attempting to reengineer the Internet to forget history is reminiscent of calls to reengineer the Net to stop online porn or copyright piracy. It’s an impossible dream. Moreover, First Amendment challenges are sure to follow whenever government proposes limits on the flow of information or fact-gathering, as an Eraser Button mandate would require.

This again makes it clear why the alternative approach — gradual assimilation of kids into online environments through mentoring, education, and digital literacy — is superior. We’d never think the best approach to introducing kids to public places is to prohibit them from ever seeing them and then just tossing them right into those environments at some random age. Instead, we help them along and teach them lessons as we do. What’s true for traditional public spaces should be true for Facebook and other online spaces as well.

As fellow Forbes contributor Joshua Gans rightly notes, “we want children to experience these networks. Put simply, a parental supervised approach is like giving them training wheels for society.” This approach will better prepare our youth for a future in which their online and offline lives are increasingly intertwined. It represents a more sensible use of our personal and public resources since education and mentoring strategies are entirely constitution and avoid the protracted legal battles that would accompany new regulations.

Corporate responsibility must also be a big part of the answer. Stephen Balkam, founder and chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, has outlined several steps that Facebook and other social networking sites can take to ensure parents can be comfortable letting their kids online. For example, default settings for those under 13 could be “friends-only” and parents should be able to decide who their kids can be friends with. There might also be advertising limits for kids’ accounts.

Once empowered with more tools like these, parents can help guide their children’s online development and their gradual assimilation into interactive environments. By contrast, Joshua Gans notes, “if you ban parents from allowing their kids to join Facebook at their own social pace, you prevent us from having a role in their social education.”

Critics like Common Sense Media should abandon their prohibitionist pipe-dreams and instead adopt this more constructive approach by working with parents instead of against them.