Facebook’s Terms of Service could not be clearer – no one can create an account if they are under 13.  A date of birth is one of the few pieces of information you do have to share with Facebook when setting up an account, and if this indicates you are not old enough, then the account will fail to be created.

Why then is it estimated that over 5.6 million Facebook users are actually younger than this? And why the magic age of 13 anyway?

Facebook and many other web sites bar people under age 13 because of US legislation, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  This requires web sites to give special treatment to children aged 12 or younger, and aims to stop marketers prying and collecting personal information from children or using their data to advertise to them.  Of course this is of distinct relevance to Facebook, as their entire business model is based upon the use of user-shared personal information for the targeting of ads – and setting the exclusion age at 13 enables them to neatly swerve the entire issue.  Sites without this restriction must get parental permission before allowing children to enter, it all becomes a heck of a lot more complicated and expensive and the site owners must take steps to protect privacy.

Searching for new guidelines...

Searching for new guidelines…

Far easier to set a rule about minimum ages – and then ignore extensive violations of it!  Of course Facebook would say, they cannot police and regulate the personal details of every user who sets up an account with a false date of birth, and they state that they respond quickly to any reported violations.

However they could surely make the process a bit harder to game, for savvy millennial preteens.  A Reuters test of Facebook’s signup process in 2012 showed that a child could bypass the site’s screening criteria far too easily –  Facebook effectively blocked a fictitious sign-up from an underage prospective user, exactly as it should. But after just one hour’s wait, the site accepted a sign-up using the identical name, email, password and birthday but citing a different birth year!  I am not a programmer, but I would guess it’d be fairly easy to programme an algorithm to at least flag that pattern of behavior for review by a human?

Incidentally, in Spain the cut-off age is subject to local law requiring a user to be 14 – this supercedes COPPA.  I have tested this, if you try to create an account using a UK proxy server, 13 is fine, otherwise it’s not- this is legislation from the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD).

Why did we test this? Because we had a 13 year old daughter who was dying to join Facebook.  And the process led to a lot of research and planning, about the best ways to keep her safe online.  Bringing our children up with their privacy and safety adequately secured in an online world is a whole other series of articles believe me, possibly a book – and we have learned some things the hard way, as this world brings specific challenges previous generations of parents haven’t had to explore.

For what it’s worth the groundrules we settled on were as follows:

  • Her Facebook email notifications come to a mailbox that I control
  • Myself and a number of other responsible adults are in her Close Friends list and keep close watch on every move she makes (without needing to post ‘embarrassing comments on everything’, of course)
  • She does not accept friend adds from anyone she does not know personally – and if I don’t know them personally, she knows to expect a conversation about who they are and how she knows them
  • Her phone and tablet remain in the living room overnight, never in her bedroom
  • She does not add or accept any app or game requests without me looking at it first and reviewing the permissions it requires
  • We approve any photos she wants to tag herself in or use on her profile/cover page
  • She has been forced to read and discuss all of my ‘boring’ Facebook articles on security, audience, ‘like farming’ and so on

I am not ready to write the article (or the book) yet, because this system is a work in progress – things still evolving, and reflecting a converged digital world.  I know many parents will regard my precautions as overbearing, and a Microsoft research project in 2011 in the US found that 55% of parents of 12 year olds said they were on Facebook, and 76% of them had helped their child set up the account and gain access to the site.

Putting on one side for now whether you want your children exposed to the kind of ads, language, images and potentially age-inappropriate content and contact requests that Facebook is full of, I have a real problem with this – because the only way the parents could have ‘helped’ their child in this way is to collude with them in a lie about when they were born.  For me, this feels like a dangerous precedent that I would not be comfortable with in my own family, encouraging my kids to lie online or off.

I do know that my 13 year old has received a number of connection requests from extremely iffy ‘friends of friends’, people I am not sure were the age they said they were either, and we have used the ‘report’ button once or twice.  Could she have dealt with these ok on her own? Possibly, but she shouldn’t have to.  Peers of her own age have also been subject to bullying online and via text messages/ Whatsapp – the kind of behavior her parent’s generation were able to at least leave behind at the school gate can now follow them into their homes and bedrooms… all we can do as parents is keep ourselves as clued up as possible about the technologies and communications channels involved, and encourage a policy of openness and support within the family, to tackle things together.

If you are concerned about the safety of any child in Spain, or about any website or inappropriate online content they may be exposed to, contact http://www.protegeles.com/eng_index.asp – they also have a helpline at 917 400 019, and will call you back with a translator online if needed, for confidential independent advice

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