We have all heard the news by now that Facebook is developing technology that would allow children under 13 to join the network with parental supervision, as “tweens” are a valuable demographic. If allowed, parents would not only be able to control who their children “friend,” but also have insight into what applications they use and the games they play—for which they could possibly be charged as their children access them.
This has sparked a lot of conversations and debate among concerned parents and online safety advocates, bringing the topic of online safety for children to a whole new level. If Facebook does welcome this new demographic with open arms, offering parental guidance isn’t going to protect them from exposed personal data and the dangers they potentially face online, like trolling and cyber-bullying, as they make their foray into our digital world.
Children are more vulnerable to hackers
Facebook is Internet-based, which means participation here can lead to internet social networking risks for all users, let alone children under 13. Whether it’s hackers manipulating code to gain access to personal information or “social” hackers, who exploit personal connections through social networks for nefarious purposes, they design their actions to appear harmless and legitimate in an effort to trick people into getting past security walls. Some hackers even disguise their ploys behind “Like” and “Share” buttons across social networking sites, which could lead to the user unknowingly performing actions, such as downloading malware or sending their IDs to a site. Those are risks that all of us face the second we turn on our computers or smartphones, but children under 13 are even more vulnerable.
It’s true, some hackers (more than many of us would like to admit) are so good they can get one past even the most technologically savvy. And then there are times when you can spot a scam from a mile away. Children lack that knowledge and experience, making them more apt to fall prey to this illicit activity, whether it’s done through alerts, messages or social interaction. It’s also important to note that children who are accessing Facebook by way of their parents’ profiles could be putting their parents as well as themselves at risk.
Parental supervision can only go so far
A year ago Consumer Reports revealed that about 7.5 million users in the U.S. were under the age of 13, and about 5 million were under the age of 10, violating the site’s Terms. There’s the somewhat obvious, yet completely sound, argument that if Facebook lets children under 13 join as long as their parents are watching, kids will simply start a different profile on the sly with a fake age. But let’s, for the sake of arguing, say they don’t.
The ability to supervise would allow a parent the right to approve who is allowed to connect with their child. However, once the connection is established, parents can monitor and control activity only AFTER it is posted. If a child posts something that is inappropriate, or possibly harmful to their future, it could take days for the parent to see it. That gives users plenty of time to pick it up and even repost it to sites where the parent has no control. There’s also the risk that children under 13 could access information that is inappropriate. Facebook has many public pages that can be proactively searched quite easily.
Bullies will get around parental supervision: they always have
To reiterate, Facebook, even with privacy settings in place, offers no guarantee that content shared is truly private. A photo that is shared with an approved “friend” can be easily saved by this friend and then shared within and outside the network. That’s beyond a parent’s control. Some applications are even making that easier for Facebook users. For example, a new Firefox Add-on called FacePAD allows users to download an entire album with the click of a button. With the parental supervision that Facebook may allow for this age group, parents could monitor their own children’s activity, but they would be powerless over the actions of other children. Even if parents are able to control specific conversations, there’s always the risk that they may not be able to act until it’s too late. An unfortunate incident of a mother who went so far as to choke the daughter’s online bully lamented that she felt powerless against Facebook. It’s hard to imagine that the ability to monitor a child’s activity, without the direct ability to control those bullying their children, would make a significant difference.
Should Facebook allow children under 13 to join the network, enforcing parental controls is a small step toward protecting them but in my eyes, not an effective one? There’s the stark reality that once information is posted to a social networking site, no amount of privacy settings or parental controls will keep that information absolutely private. And the worst part, the more information you post, the more vulnerable you may become.