June 4, 2012 at 1:04 PM ET
It's no secret that Facebook is lousy with kids ages 12 and under — despite the social network's Terms of Service requiring members to be at least 13. What's more, several studies show that plenty of kids who lie about their age to join, do so with the permission of their parents, and even their help. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook is exploring ways to give kids access while being mindful of government regulations and safety concerns:
Mechanisms being tested include connecting children's accounts to their parents' and controls that would allow parents to decide whom their kids can "friend" and what applications they can use, people who have spoken with Facebook executives about the technology said. The under-13 features could enable Facebook and its partners to charge parents for games and other entertainment accessed by their children, the people said.
Facebook and other popular social sites that operate in the United States currently maintain an age limit to avoid the cumbersome restrictions of the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires commercial websites to get parental permission before collecting the personal information of any user under the age of 13. COPPA can't protect kids who join in violation of Facebook's rules anyway, and so concerns such as privacy, online predators and bullying remain.
Repeating the statement provided to the WSJ, Facebook told msnbc.com: "Many 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. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."
As the WSJ noted, "a study sponsored by Microsoft Research released last fall found that 36 percent of parents were aware that their children joined Facebook before age 13 and that a substantial percentage of those parents helped their kids in the effort." (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
According to a Consumer Reports study published in May, an estimated 5.6 million kids aged 12 and under still manage to have Facebook accounts, with 800,000 harassed or subjected to cyberbullying on the social network. Further, the study suggested that most parents who knew their kids were on Facebook did not discuss online safety or keep up with the Facebook activities of their children.
The WSJ pointed out, and a Facebook spokesperson confirmed with msnbc.com, Facebook develops a lot of software and tools that never see the light of day, and there is no confirmation if or when kids under the age of 13 will be invited to join the social network.
Age restrictions aside, Facebook offers growing resources for kids, parents and teachers, including the social reporting tool and digital safety resource page for teachers, a partnership with the PTA, a detailed Family Safety Center, and more.
And creating safety features to admit minors who are joining anyway seems to be a proactive move on Facebook's behalf, and one that's been recommended by online privacy advocates.
While the Federal Trade Commission is considering changes to COPPA to ensure parental permission on websites oriented towards kids, "Jeff Chester, a child-privacy advocate who led the campaign to enact COPPA, wants the FTC and Congress to consider a different option," Consumer Reports reported. "He thinks Facebook should create a section for children under 13 and require opt-in parental permission, as COPPA requires."
News of Facebook possibly expanding its age restrictions comes a year after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hinted about opening the social network to minors at a summit on innovation in education.
Speaking at the NewSchools Summit talk last May, Zuckerberg described social networking as an educational tool, Fortune reported, and called the current COPPA restrictions "will be a fight we take on at some point."
That point may be near.
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