As Facebook explores lifting its age restrictions for users, a debate is raging over whether this might offer protections for children who are already using the social network or whether it would further exploit kids.
Much of the concern revolves around the timing of the news. It comes just after Facebook’s disappointing initial public offering, and many see this move as a way to expand the company’s customer base.
But Stephen Balkam, head of the Family Online Safety Institute, which helps companies share online safety practices, said Facebook has been studying the issue of underage use for some time.
“I think that recent research showing that an estimated 7.5 million underaged kids are already on Facebook has helped to heighten this issue. Additionally, the fact that many parents actively lie to get their kids on Facebook is an unintended consequence of the rules that are in place, and, I think, Facebook wants to address this,” Balkam said.
I asked Balkam to elaborate on the issues at play in this possible change and how parents might prepare for supervising the youngest children on Facebook and other social media sites.
Here’s our Q&A:
Why is it a concern that kids younger than 13 are on Facebook if those kids presumably have a parent monitoring their use?
There are plenty of underaged kids on Facebook without their parent’s permission or knowledge. And if a 12-year-old says she is 21 to get onto Facebook, then her default is to an open, public profile, which is the worst of all worlds. And even for those who do have parents monitoring their use, it would be far better for the tweens to have a specially built part of Facebook in which to share and communicate.
What can Facebook do to better protect their youngest users?
First of all make the default to friends only and not allow their profiles to be public.
Second, ensure that parents have the ability to accept or deny their younger children’s friend requests.
And thirdly, I’d like to see the under-13s have an ad-free environment in which to connect with each other.
How can a parent best introduce and monitor their child’s use of Facebook and other social media sites?
First of all, make sure to have a conversation (or two!) with your child before they go onto a social media site. Ideally, sit down and talk through a family safety contract, and set the ground rules and house rules for using Facebook and other sites.
Next, friend your child on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other sites. And then, if and when issues arise, talk things over again. If your child steps over the boundaries, then enforce a sanction that is reasonable and related to what has happened. Above all, keep up a regular line of communication with your child.
Anything else a parent should keep in mind?
Be aware that if you buy your child a smartphone, he or she may well have access to Facebook and other social networking sites when they are at school or at a friend’s house. Make sure you create rules for these situations and use parental controls on their phones as well as the computer in your home.
What do you think? Should Facebook create new access for children under 13? If so, what should the membership look like?