Facebook wants your children. But is the company’s gambit to boost kid users inevitable, clever, nefarious or just plain wrongheaded?
Facebook’s practice of blocking children under 13 may come to an end, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal. Since many children lie about their ages to get on the site and CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes it has compelling educational potential, the company is looking at ways to let children join safely without violating federal guidelines.
According to the Journal, Facebook is testing ways to link the accounts of parents and children, consulting with Disney and other child-centric companies experienced with matching children with Web content.
Since over 7.5 million children under 13 already use Facebook, the company is likely also aiming to protect itself — according to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, Facebook needs parental permission to collect data about children, and since young people are on the site surreptitiously, it could land in legal trouble.
With intense scrutiny following Facebook’s floundering IPO and continued regulator attention, Facebook’s kid-proofing plan may be driven by a wish to protect the company as much as a drive to get new young users or expand into the education market.
So is this good or bad? According to the Wall Street Journal, some lawmakers approve of adding a children’s zone to Facebook, including the Attorney General of Maryland — but other child advocates worry the site is too adult for children, and may pose safety risks.
Facebook will continue to attract younger and younger users even if the age ban remains intact, so letting children on under stricter supervision might actually keep them more protected online than they were during the ban.
At the same time, enforcing guidelines especially for children’s accounts may end up just as difficult as keeping them offline in the first place.
Even though some parents lie to get their children Facebook accounts, these parents often keep a close eye on the account activity, with one report noting over 60 percent of parents snoop through their child’s Facebook account without their permission.
Some parents are even curtailing social media use by posting embarrassing images of their children as punishment.
As parents learn to navigate Facebook and watch their children, however, they run the risk of pushing kids off Facebook and to other mediums with looser guidelines, like Twitter, as kids prove highly enterprising in finding online avenues outside their parents’ supervision. Though Facebook remains wildly popular, if it finds a way to strictly enforce links between the profiles of parents and children, it may lose the interest of the children it courted in the first place.
Facebook’s plan shows the company is eager to tap into a new demographic and avoid extra scrutiny, but it will be tricky to enforce without losing the interest of the group it’s looking to attract. Facebook shot to popularity because it was cool. If it aligns itself with the older generation and makes children feel like it’s a tool their parents can use to keep tabs on them, it runs a serious risk of alienating a younger generation.
Obviously, parents need to watch Internet consumption, and supervision is in the best interest of children. But Facebook’s goal to stay hip and parents’ goals to keep their children safe do not overlap, and may cause trouble for the social network.