While Facebook does not permit registration for those younger than 13, that doesn’t stop many web-savvy minors from signing up and using the social network under an assumed age. Recently, the trend has garnered media attention as Facebook explores ways to make the online socializing experience legally accessible for this very young crowd. This means developing special technology that would allow parents to supervise their children’s online activities, to control whom they can add as friends and to check app requests before they’re allowed access to their children’s profiles.
Facebook appears to be tapping into a new market, and many parents are worried that the profit will come at the price of their children’s privacy. According to recent statistics, 20% of ten-year-olds use Facebook, while 55% of twelve-year-olds do so, as well.
Lying about your age for personal benefit is nothing new; the fake ID business attests to that. But while the use of false credentials to gain access to booze or to a 19-plus club can be policed, the realm of online social networks is a Wild West in comparison. It is uncharted, with no Internet police officers ready to stop misconduct from taking place.
Today’s children grow up with this rapidly evolving technology, and the difficulty lies in keeping their activities in check and away from the seamier side of the digital world. Facebook wants to take steps to introduce parental controls within its system that would help monitor the activity of children, rather than shutting out the under-13 demographic entirely. It would allow youngsters to use the site with certain restrictions in place, rather than, say, developing a separate online portal geared towards children alone.
The social network has come under fire for its plans, with many concerned that personal information posted to the site by under-13s will be used for targeted advertising that will turn children into pliable, responsive consumers as they grow older. In the testing phase are mechanisms that would connect parents’ accounts to their children’s, as well as bill parents directly when their children access a game requiring payment. There must be money to be made in connecting families online, but there are also signs of resistance.
With Facebook’s unimpressive share price, and new shareholders waiting expectantly for their ROI, perhaps Zuckerberg can’t afford not to explore this demographic. Perhaps he has no choice because, controls or no controls, children will still be lying about their age just to be part of the world’s biggest social network.
It’s very difficult to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, let alone Facebook. And some of the responsibility for ensuring the safety of children online should rest squarely with the parents. Children are the smallest demographic category (mis)represented on Facebook, and are most vulnerable to the various threats lurking online. Parental controls, then, sound like a sensible solution to an important problem. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a good start. What this will do for Facebook’s share price can only be guessed at; given that this new consumer market is very much in the minority, any potential profits to be made will likely be small, at least in the beginning. Pint-sized Facebook users will have to come into their own before the social network can make serious money from them.
All the same, to put its plan into action, Facebook will have to comply with child protection laws in the United States and other countries. So some policing of the behemoth social network can be expected.
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