Facebook’s Age Conundrum

Mar 14, 2011 - Krux Digital - 0
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The NYT ran a great article this weekend about age enforcement on Facebook (and elsewhere on the 'net), how easily their 13+ policy can be circumvented, and how readily many parents are allowing their children to fib about their age.

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.

Now, Facebook is hardly 4chan (god love 'em), and in no way can it be considered the darker recesses of the internet.  This, combined with peer pressure, is likely why so many parents are willing to play along as their kids sneak under the wire.  But, it is a place where kids can be kids - from teens, to college age folks, to the simply young-at-heart.  And, frankly, it can be decidedly PG-13, often approaching R.  (But to Facebook's credit, never ever NC-17.)  

And as I think about what my niece and nephew post on Facebook (both well over thirteen and honest about their age, incidentally), some of it is certainly inappropriate for the 10 and 11 year old children of my best friend (both of whom, by the way, are currently lobbying him daily for Facebook accounts.)

It's a conundrum.  And there is no age limit for the internet.  What Facebook and others bump up against are the COPPA guidelines, governing the collection of data about, and the targeting of, children under 13.  The 13+ rule is a perfectly logical and understandable self-imposed policy decision to ensure they stay on the right side of that clear, bright line. 

The Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with enforcing the child protection act, acknowledges the problem. But Mary K. Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the commission, said there was no good solution.

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.

But if enforcement mechanisms are weak, and stated age limits are meaningless and generally known to be so, at what point must Facebook strengthen its age gateway or somehow curtail some of the data collection and ad targeting that's been powering its breathless revenue growth?  More importantly, when will overactive regulatory or legislative forces start asking  harder questions?  And ultimately, because of Facebook's sheer reach, power, and ubiquity, will they be held to a higher standard? 

All of it speaks to a problem that we'll long face in digital media, whether it be in social media or the more pedestrian age limit enforcement for streamed video content as rated by the MPAA.  We are only now internalizing the importance of actively managing and securing our digital selves; and only the barest sketches have emerged of the standards to govern how that information is collected, verified, and securely shared.

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