In his book Talking Back to Facebook, James Steyer, who heads the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which reviews movies, games, and other media for parents, makes a related point about how “shallow and unreal” many online relationships are. He also notes that girls can be drawn to comment constantly on each other’s appearances online and points to the body-image pressure that can bring. Common Sense has started a petition against Facebook’s plan to sign up kids under 13.
What’s the argument Facebook is making for signing up young kids? That it’s a hassle to enforce the existing age restriction. “Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services,” the company told the Journal. Here’s the background: The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, passed by Congress back in 1998, bars websites from collecting personal data from kids without their parents’ permission. That’s why Facebook has to set up a mechanism for parental approval before it can let kids on the site. Of course, millions of underage kids have signed up anyway, by pretending to be older than they are. Facebook doesn’t have to go look for those underage accounts and delete them—the site just has to respond when they’re reported. But the larger claim is that it’s a bad idea for all these kids to be lying about their age. Why not allow younger kids on the site, and monitor them, Facebook argues.
The company also notes that many of the young kids already using the site are doing so abetted by their parents, making it especially hard for Facebook to enforce the rules. A survey by the Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd found that two-thirds of the time, underage kids with Facebook accounts had their parents’ help in signing up. These are the “recent reports” Facebook mentioned—evidence that families are flouting the age restriction. To Facebook, all those lying kids—and their parental enablers—are proof that COPPA is failing. So let’s just scrap it.
I just don’t buy that argument. If the law isn’t working the way it should, let’s make it better and stronger, as the Federal Trade Commission has been considering (and which Facebook, naturally, opposes). And even with all its imperfections, COPPA doesn’t have to stop parents and kids from ducking the rules to serve a purpose when parents want to enforce those rules. If your kid is begging for something you don’t want them to have, “It’s illegal” and “You’re not allowed” are pretty good retorts. And while a lot of kids under 13 are on Facebook and other sites like it, the majority of them still aren’t: The 2011 Pew survey found that 45 percent of 12-year-olds said they’d joined a social network of some kind, compared with 82 percent of 13-year-olds. As K.J. Dell’Antonia puts it over at Motherlode: “As a parent, the biggest difference I see between a Facebook that allows children and one that doesn’t would be that more children on Facebook would mean more social pressure to join.”
What to think about Facebook signing up little kids basically comes down to this: How much do you trust the company to do right by them? As it happens, advocates who line up on Facebook’s side often also take money from the company (and from other Silicon Valley giants). I’m glad to see that some members of Congress are responding more skeptically. Figuring out how to monitor kids online is hard enough as it is. We don’t need Facebook to make it harder.