Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is taking heat for recent comments he made about how he'd like to let kids under 13 on Facebook. Let the kids play, we say.
Right now, Facebook doesn't officially let anyone under 13 sign up. But at a tech summit last week, Zuckerberg made it clear he wants that to change. Specifically, he said Facebook will take on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits social networking sites from signing up kids under 13 without an onerous parental approval process. "That will be a fight we take on at some point," he said. "My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age."
This freaked people out, since letting kids on social networks is seen by many as throwing them into a pit of knife-wielding sex offenders. The Consumer Union wrote a letter to Zuckerberg urging Facebook to more efficiently obliterate little kids' illicit Facebook profiles. Cybersafety experts are urging a more robust parental approval process.
Here's the problem: Keeping kids off Facebook is impossible. An estimated 7.5 million kids under 13 already have accounts. And this is just the number of kids whose parents are aware that they're on Facebook. This enormous population of kids will be on Facebook even if Mark Zuckerberg instituted a policy where he had to personally speak with their parents on the phone before they get a profile, because their parents are OK with it. So why pretend Facebook "isn't for kids?"
But we need to protect these kids' privacy, right? Unfortunately, any attempt by Facebook to better police underage users will not only fail, it will also diminish privacy for everyone. The most likely age safeguard would involve credit card verification. Do you really want Facebook to have your credit card on file so they know you're of age? Or your driver's license? The next Facebook scare wouldn't be finding your pictures exposed to strangers: It would be having your bank account emptied by hackers.
But kids are going to ruin their futures with stupid Facebook antics! Yes, kids are going to do stupid things on Facebook. But they already do stupid things all over the web on services that don't offer even the highly-flawed privacy controls Facebook does. The chat service Tinychat, a tween favorite, is completely anonymous and in fact seems to designed specifically to enable underage girls and boys to flash strangers on webcams in the most efficient manner possible. Ditto for the webcam community Stickam. Twitter and Tumblr, which are even more public and prone to drama than Facebook, swarm with little kids.
We shouldn't be trying to keep kids off Facebook, but to make Facebook a better place for kids. Facebook should be pressured not to collect more of our personal information in order to keep kids off, but to fix their shamefully broken privacy controls so kids that do have profiles can understand them. (Not to mention adults.) Facebook should be pressured to back off on the authoritarian "real name" policy that forces kids to attach all their youthful indiscretions to their real identity. (Not to mention adults.) But most importantly, parents should be deeply involved in their little kids' social networking presences. Especially the ones that aren't on Facebook. That's the real scary shit.
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