Parents help underage children lie to get on Facebook, survey finds


(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

The minimum age Facebook sets for its social network is 13 — in line with federal laws to protect children’s online privacy.

Yet according to a study funded in part by Microsoft and universities, more than half of all parents with 12-year-olds said they knew their children were signed up for the service. One in five parents of 10-year-olds knew of their children’s activity on the site.

Asked how the kids signed up for the service — thus violating the site’s terms of service — nearly seven in 10 parents said they helped their children set up accounts.

“There has been outrage about underaged children being on Facebook. And as it turns out, many parents are not only okay with it — they are helping their children set up accounts,” said Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher and co-author of “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age.”

The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, drew from a random sampling of 1,007 parents age 26 and older with children ages 10 to 14 living with them.

The survey comes amid a debate over the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act , known as COPPA, in a new era of mobile apps and other technologies not clearly covered by the 12-year-old law. Consumer Reports recently reported that 7 million underage users were on Facebook.

Opponents of recommendations by the Federal Trade Commission to update the law say age limits for Internet services don’t prevent children from using age-restricted sites.

They say companies should be allowed flexibility to experiment with new services and technologies without new regulations.

Boyd said she found in the study, co-researched by professors from Northwestern University, the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard, that parents wanted their kids online early.

“They don’t want to be told how to be a parent,” she said.

They often help their kids set up e-mail accounts to communicate with relatives and friends.

And for Facebook, with 800 million users, parents want their children to be part of the biggest conversation platform on the Web, Boyd said.

But privacy advocates say the survey didn’t ask parents where they were fully aware of what data were being collected about their children from sites such as Facebook. If parents knew that sites such as Facebook collect information to tailor ads, advocates say, they would be more cautious.

“Few parents — let alone children and teens — understand or can control the data collection and online targeting applications deployed by Facebook’s social media surveillance system,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of privacy group the Center for Digital Democracy. If parents knew, “a very different set of answers would be given.”

According to the survey, one in five parents acknowledged having a 10-year-old on Facebook. That number rises to 32 percent for parents of 11-year-olds and 55 percent for parents of 12-year-olds.

Related:

Inappropriate content findings its way to mobile apps

Facebook forms political action committee

Teens part with privacy one click at a time

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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