coppa

Kids still lie to get on Facebook, parents still OK with that

Nov. 1, 2011 at 4:10 PM ET

Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age /
msnbc.com /

"Perverts."

That's the (incorrect) reason why Facebook has a minimum age requirement, according to parents in a peer-reviewed study, "Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the 'Children's Online Privacy Protection Act' (available from FirstMonday.org).

Other wrong responses included "because it’s more for adults," "children don’t need to have a social media presence"  and "due to adult content and language." Still, "I don't know" was the most common response from parents who were even aware Facebook has an age restriction.

Of the 1,007 parents polled (all with kids aged 10-13), only two referenced the correct answer: "Privacy." More specifically, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Enacted by U.S. Congress in 1998 (practically the Paleozoic era of the Internet), COPPA requires commercial websites to obtain parental permission before collecting the personal info of any user under the age of 13. Facebook and other popular social networks avoid COPPA's costly, cumbersome restrictions by simply restricting user age.

Thirteen years later, parents know little about the government restrictions meant to protect their kids' privacy, and many allow their children to lie about their ages to join Facebook, while losing the intended protections of the government.

That's not how it's supposed to work, according to the study which published these findings:

  • Half of parents in the study reported that their child is on Facebook, even in cases where children do not meet the legal age requirement for use of the site.
  • Among parents of children who are old enough to be on Facebook — the parents of 13– and 14–year–olds — almost three quarters (72 percent) report that their child uses the site.
  • Almost a fifth (19 percent) of respondents who were reporting on their 10–year–old child’s online experiences also noted that the child has a Facebook account. This number increases to nearly a third (32 percent) for children age 11 and over half (55 percent) for 12–year–olds.
  • While only 53 percent of parents believe that there is a minimum age, most (89 percent) parents stated that they believe that there "should" be a minimum age for Facebook use.
  • Of the 89 percent who believe that there should be a minimum age, the average age that they suggest is 14.9, which is considerably higher than the current minimum age (13). Interestingly, this age is also higher than what these same parents suggest is an appropriate age for a child to join Facebook: 14.
Why parents help their children lie to Facebook /

But it's not Facebook and other such sites that need to change, or even parents, the study concludes. It's COPPA.

For the most part, Facebook and other social networks respect COPPA by promptly dumping any account tied to an underage user.

"Facebook removes 20,000 people a day, people who are underage," Facebook privacy czar Mozelle Thompson asserted in March, following a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that found nearly half of all 12-year-olds in the U.S. are using social network sites.

"If you are reporting a child’s account registered under a false date of birth, and the child’s age is reasonably verifiable as under 13, we will promptly delete the account. If the reported child’s age is not reasonably verifiable as under 13, then we may not be able to take action on the account," Thompson said.

In May, Consumer Reports said that 7.5 million Facebook users are under age 13, and "a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children’s use of the site.” Further, the magazine's survey found "found that their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents, exposing them to malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies."

These findings don't differ much from the new study:

Although many sites restrict access to children, our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age — in fact, often help them to do so — in order to gain access to age–restricted sites in violation of those sites’ Terms of Service (TOS). This is especially true for general–audience social media sites and communication services such as Facebook, Gmail, and Skype, which allow children to connect with peers, classmates, and family members for educational, social, or familial reasons.

Parents equate age restrictions with maturity, and many considered that the litmus test as to whether they allowed their kids to violate Facebook's Terms of Service by lying about their age to join, according to the study. It also found that parents are indeed concerned about privacy and online safety issues, but they also may not understand the risks that children face or how their data or how their data are used."

Perhaps parental unawareness of privacy issues speaks well of COPPA's initial effectiveness. "COPPA has succeeded both in stopping some egregious predatory data practices and in raising some level of awareness of the issue of collecting data about children," the study points out. "The FTC has actively enforced COPPA, leveraging civil penalties against those who fail to obtain parental consent or ineffectively implement its provisions."

Of course, when kids lie about their age to get on Facebook, their personal data is collected, no parental consent needed. Indeed, a lot has changed since COPPA launched in 1998. "Social network sites, mobile communication technology, geo–locative data (i.e., a child’s physical location as known to a Web service or mobile device), and interactive media," are the examples cited in 2010 by the FTC calling for public comments revisiting COPPA.

"Perverts" will always be an Internet danger parents need to be concerned about. "Adult content and language" is now unavoidable in any media form, and arguably "a social media presence" is now a fact of life. Laws can't replace parents when it comes to safely shepherding children through the unavoidable Internet, but there online privacy has its place for both children and adults.

As the government continues to wrestle with Internet regulation and online privacy, the study points out that age restriction — given both the difficulty in online age verification and parental willingness to allow kids to lie — is not a realistic solution. Instead, the study proposes that "policy–makers shift away from privacy regulation models that are based on age or other demographic categories and, instead, develop universal privacy protections for online users." 

Note:"Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the 'Children's Online Privacy Protection Act' (available from FirstMonday.org) is authored by Berkman Center for Internet & Society members danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey.

More on the annoying way we live now:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or FacebookAlso, Google+.

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