Media has been buzzing with the recent news that Facebook is working on technology that will allow kids under the age of 13 to create an account on the site. With government officials, NGO's, online safety experts and others weighing in on both sides – good or bad, I felt compelled to jump in and voice an opinion.
What Needs to Happen
In order for Facebook to allow kids under the age of 13 on the site, there are several things that need to happen.
To begin with, Facebook must address the COPPA concerns. For those of you who haven't heard of COPPA, it's the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal regulation that requires prior verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information online from children under the age of 13. Facebook needs to obtain parental permission for kids under 13 to create a Facebook account.
It is essential that Facebook fully explores the preteen age range they're targeting and provides an age-appropriate experience for that age range. Not all existing Facebook features are appropriate for a preteen audience regardless of parental consent and oversight, and some may even vary depending on the age of the preteen. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think Facebook is more interested in capturing the 10-12 year old audience as that's the audience most interested in being where their friends are. And, I imagine at this point, Facebook has a pretty good idea of what that age group is now doing, albeit covertly, on their service. This information could be used to help protect them on a legitimate Facebook account.
Hand-in-hand with providing an age-appropriate experience, Facebook must provide parents with the means to monitor and supervise their children. For instance, Facebook could offer a predetermined, baseline experience for kids under 13 and provide parents with the tools to customize the experience making it either more restrictive or less restrictive based on a combination of factors including their children's age, maturity level, family norms as well as time parents are willing to commit to micromanaging the experience.
Facebook needs to embed a strong educational program into the experience focusing on both digital citizenship and online safety. Embedding education into the experience takes it beyond safety tips at the bottom of a page or a link to Facebook's safety site, but rather places teachable moments throughout the experience, especially at the point of interactivity when crucial decisions are being made.
Lastly, Facebook will have to make it easy for kids to report potential problems and, at the same time, should also employ technological solutions to proactively identify problems.
Assuming all the above needs are met, let's look at the benefits.
Facebook is ultimately offering a solution to the growing problem of underage users on their service, either there with or without their parent's consent. We've heard from Facebook that they remove 20,000 underage users daily from their service and these are only the ones they identify. These children are currently in an environment that offers them no protection for their age group – parental, technological, and/or educational. Creating an environment specifically for children will address these issues.
Connecting parents with preteen children on Facebook starts the parental involvement early on in the child's social media life-cycle. It brings the child into an environment that the typical parent of a preteen has used and has knowledge of, ultimately making the parent the expert if only for a brief time. This is a time when children are still willing to listen and learn from their parents, and less likely to push boundaries.
Relying on parents to oversee the social networking experience early on creates a platform for ongoing conversation. It provides valuable insight to the parent as to the child's expectations with respect to online social interactions. It builds an online collaboration between parent and child that can continue on as the child ages.
Gradual graduation to Facebook from the preteen to teens will make for more informed teens who are well aware of digital citizenship and online safety, including managing their reputation.
Additionally, some of the tools designed for the preteen experience could be utilized for parents to keep a closer eye on their younger teens on Facebook; those ranging from 13 to 15 who typically jump in without any guidance at all. Facebook for under 13's will produce teens who have matured in the social media realm with the expectation that parents play a significant role.
If correctly implemented, Facebook could offer kids and parents a shared platform that would afford kids a safer environment to explore, learn and ultimately understand the responsibility that comes along with social media. Think of it as a virtual 'kiddie pool' of sorts.
With this said, I don't think 'Facebook for Kids' is a bad idea. What do you think?