My 9-year-old son has a Facebook account I set up for him last year while reporting a TIME magazine story about the social-media giant considering allowing kids and tweens on the site. I wanted to see how easy it was to circumvent Facebook’s requirement that users be at least 13. The answer: a piece of cake.
By simply plugging in a birthdate that added five years to my son’s age, my boy instantly joined the ranks of the 7.5 million kids under 13 that Consumer Reports said last year had Facebook accounts. More than 5 million of those kids were under 10.
Just last week, I deactivated the account — which I did not allow my son to use — because I was tired of getting nagging messages from Facebook to my email address informing my son that he had “notifications pending.” I can barely stay on top of my own Facebook and Twitter feeds; I have no urge to add my son’s account to the list.
Yet while even 13 seems to me too young for Facebooking, now comes word via the Wall Street Journal that the newly public company is brainstorming ways to allow preteens to join the rest of the world in “friending” and “tagging” — with some form of parental supervision. Facebook is testing new technology that would connect children’s accounts to those of their parents, for example, or let Mom and Dad put the kibosh on any new friend they deem undesirable.
The Journal noted that research published last fall by Microsoft found that 36% of parents knew that their preteen kids had joined Facebook; many of those parents had even helped them figure out how to dodge the rules. Given that kids are already on Facebook anyway, the company needs to find a way to make it legal:
Any attempt to give younger kids access to the site would be extraordinarily sensitive, given regulators’ already heightened concerns about how Facebook protects user privacy. But Facebook, concerned that it faces reputational and regulatory risks from children already using the service despite its rules, believes it has little choice but to look into ways of establishing controls that could formalize their presence on the site, people familiar with the matter said.
“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,” Facebook said in response to questions about the new technology. “We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.”
But Gwenn O’Keeffe, the lead author of an American Academy of Pediatrics report that cautions that social-media sites may not be “healthy environments” for children and teens, has said that Facebook reaching out to younger kids is akin to opening a Pandora’s box. Children are simply not ready to hop on Facebook, developmentally speaking.
I reported in TIME last year:
Since logic and sophisticated reasoning don’t kick in until high school, younger children may not realize when one of their posts is inappropriate. Yet it’s that social tentativeness that makes Facebook so attractive to kids: creating a virtual social network lets them avoid the hard work of building live-action ones. In interviews with more than 300 children, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, found that kids are nervous about ending conversations and prefer to apologize via text so they don’t have to do it in person. “Facebook is a place where you let adolescents go when they’re ready to be unsupervised,” says Turkle. “It’s like getting the keys to the cars.”
Turkle hasn’t changed her position in the past year. A professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, she’s an eagle-eyed observer of the toll social media has wrought on society. Where kids are concerned, the problem is not so much Internet predators — though they’re out there, for sure — but the propriety of children constructing online profiles and curating versions of themselves for posterity. “Do we really want our 8-year-old musings to become part of our life record?” says Turkle. “Figuring out what’s private, what’s bullying, what’s too much and what’s not enough is complicated and can take you away from important moments of development. Kids should be making real friends, not online ones.”