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Facebook Underage Users

Facebook limits accounts to those who say that they are at least 13 years old. Shockingly, a large number of those under 13 are willing to lie to use the most popular social network.

NYT (“Facebook Users Who Are Under Age Raise Concerns“):

The fake ID has gone digital, and spread to elementary school.

Across the nation, millions of young people are lying about their ages so they can create accounts on popular sites like Facebook and Myspace. These sites require users to be 13 or older, to avoid federal regulations that apply to sites with younger members. But to children, that rule is a minor obstacle that stands between them and what everybody else is doing.

Parents regularly go along with the age inflation, giving permission and helping children set up accounts. They often see it as a minor fib that is necessary to let their children participate in the digital world.

Plenty of people fudge the truth about their age, whether to buy beer or project a younger image to potential mates. But researchers and other critics say allowing children to break the rules sends the wrong message. And, they argue, it sets children loose in a digital world they may not be prepared for — exposing them to the real-life threats of inappropriate content, contact from strangers and the growing incidents of bullying by computer.

[…]

“And you should see all the third-graders who are on,” said Aundrea Kaune, the class’s teacher. Last year, she went onto Facebook and was shocked by how many students from the school were there. “It’s lying — and about age,” Ms. Kaune said. “What happens when they want to drink beer?”

The risks for under-age members of social networks are not theoretical. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of Myspace, who now runs an Internet safety consulting business, recounted a recent incident from his business. In New York State, he said, an 11-year-old boy accepted a friend request on Facebook from a girl in his class. But the girl’s account was fake, and the person behind it began posting images of the boy on sex-oriented sites, along with nasty comments. When the boy’s images started showing up in Google searches, the school suspected that he had posted them and summoned his parents. Other children began picking on him. “It can be a living nightmare for an 11-year-old who just wanted to hang out with his friends,” Mr. Nigam said.

[…]

Internet companies have set up the rules against under-age users because they must comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1998, which says Web sites that collect information from children younger than 13 must obtain parental consent. Obtaining that consent is complex and expensive, so companies like Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, reject anyone who tries to sign up using an age below 13. Google, Facebook and Yahoo all declined to talk about how many children jump the barriers, but they say they try to enforce the rules.

[…]

In 2008, state attorneys general concerned about child predators helped set up a task force to research online age verification. It concluded that creating a reliable system would be extremely difficult. “I don’t think anyone knows how to prevent a kid from lying about their age,” Ms. Engle said.

So, as I understand it, the concerns are that this teaches kids to lie and exposes them to predators. I’m skeptical on both counts.

Kids instinctively know how to lie to get what they want. They’re sending false signals in order to manipulate parents well before they learn to talk. And we’ve been teaching kids to lie for social reasons since the earliest days of mankind. Their natural instinct is to say whatever’s on their mind; we teach them to say what they’re supposed to say instead. And are teenagers who want to try beer really more likely to lie about their age if they’ve gotten away with creating a Facebook account? What’s the evidence for that?

My little girl’s only 2, so she’s never unsupervised. But, like any parent, I’ll be worried once she’s out there in the world having to make her own decisions. I’m yet to be convinced that Facebook–assuming anyone’s still using it by the time she’s interested–should be high on my list of concerns.

For one thing, very young children probably shouldn’t have internet access in their rooms, anyway. It makes a lot more sense to have them use the computer in a shared space so that parents can keep an eye on their activity. Even in the privacy of their rooms, though, I’d think parents would insist on having password access to pre-teens’ email and social media accounts.

From the excerpted description, I’m not quite sure I understand what happened to the 11-year-old in the story. He thought he was being contacted by some girl in his class and somehow wound up getting photographed in a compromising manner. That’s horrible. But we don’t need Facebook to facilitate that kind of thing; email or text messaging can easily be spoofed, too.

Ultimately, I’m just not persuaded that the world is nearly as dangerous as we’ve been led to believe. We don’t let kids go outside to play anymore because we’re worried they’re going to be snatched by predators. Now, we’re afraid to let them use the computer because bad things occasionally happen as a result. But are predators really more common than they were twenty or thirty years ago? Or is it simply that every single incident happening anywhere is  hyped everywhere?

Not long ago, a child molester would get out of prison and be set loose on society. And, if they moved to a new town, no one would ever have any idea. Now, we keep lists and alert the neighbors. Leaving aside concerns that we’ve gone too far in this direction, the practice simultaneously makes us safer while more concerned about the danger.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    I’m with you here James. Who among us didn’t sneak into Dad’s Playboy supply before the age of 18? We were sneaking beer and that awful Boone’s Farm wine to parties long before the internet existed. Have the kids use the computer in a common room. Check on it occasionally. If you use the computer as a babysitting aid, then accept the consequences. Mostly, just be a good parent. Do stuff with your kids, talk to them about sex and its consequences. Help them when they screw up.

    Steve

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  2. john personna says:

    Is the Facebook social plugin on this page new? An experiment?

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  3. just me says:

    think the better option for places like facebook would be to create kid’s accounts under a parent’s user account where the parent has complete access to every component of their child’s facebook page.

    I confess that I let my 11 year old set up a facebook account with the caveat that I know his password and can access his account (and honestly mostly he plays the games than anything else).

    I am not sure that it really is going to send him down the path into the pathological liar neighborhood. I would much rather know my 11 year old has a facebook that I can monitor than for my 11 year old to do it anyway without my knowledge or ability to monitor.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    John: It’s been there a couple of weeks.

    Twitter and Facebook are the two biggest social engines out there and even major newspaper and magazine sites are experimenting with the Facebook widget, so I figured we’d give it a try here. It’s traffic impact has thus far been quite modest but we’ll see how it goes over time.

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  5. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with you, James.

    Every new technology spawns a new round of irrational fears. Internetphobia and iPhonephobia are the latest. The fact that there’s absolutely no evidence that either is a real problem doesn’t stop the Luddite panic-squad.

    Almost all “threats to children” are overblown. It’s very hard for all of us with kids to accept, but we have to allow some degree or risk into our kids’ lives. There is no life without risk.

    The truth is that statistically our kids are more at danger from obesity than they’ll be from predators (internet or otherwise.) If you want to fear something, fear soda and french fries. They are in far, far more danger from Pepsi than from Facebook.

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  6. Boyd says:

    At the risk of sounding like I”m slipping into big-L libertarianism here…

    If we take it as a given that it’s bad for children under 13 to register for online services, how does the federal government have the power to enforce that? No, that’s not quite what I’m shooting for here. More to the point: why do we let our legislators overreach with laws like that, and then blithely facilitate our children sidestepping them?

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  7. Boyd says:

    And regarding the proliferation of social media integration here at OTB, first my feed reader shows me a new post, then when I check Facebook, I get a notification of that same post, then when I get around to looking at Twitter, what do you know? A tweet telling me that that same post is up.

    Makes me tired just thinking about it.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    And regarding the proliferation of social media integration here at OTB, first my feed reader shows me a new post, then when I check Facebook, I get a notification of that same post, then when I get around to looking at Twitter, what do you know? A tweet telling me that that same post is up.

    EGGS-sellent. Now, I’m reasonably sure you won’t miss anything.

    Seriously, it’s a minor nuisance to those following all three. But there are probably only 20 of us.

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