Recently, some familiar faces have been showing up in my ‘People You May Know’ list on Facebook. No problem with that, except that they’re friends of my son. And he’s 10. A quick, highly unscientific review reveals that at least a quarter of his classmates have accounts. They’re not alone: a survey by Minor Monitor carried out last year suggested that 38% of kids on Facebook are 12 or under.
It’s hardly surprising that children want to be part of Facebook, when their family, friends and favourite celebrities are all users. The minimum age to sign up for an account is 13, but it’s easy to bypass this: simply add a few years to your date of birth and hey presto, you’re in. And with the number of children using smartphones growing steadily (Ofcom’s latest survey says that two thirds of 12 – 15 year olds own smartphones, a higher proportion than adults), it only gets harder for parents to police. The days when you could restrict your child to using a PC under your supervision are over – now they have the potential to access the Internet whenever and wherever they choose.
In many cases, children are aided and abetted by their parents in setting up accounts, so perhaps as long as mum and dad know what they’re up to, there’s no harm in it? But Facebook is no Club Penguin. Even as an adult user, I have to be cautious about what I share, who I connect with and which apps I download, so the idea of a child trying to keep themselves safe amidst Facebook’s complicated and ever-changing privacy settings is deeply concerning.
Facebook places restrictions on accounts for under 18s: they don’t appear in public searches; they can only share with, or be tagged by, Friends or Friends of Friends; they can only chat with Friends; and ads are limited. But kids being kids, they don’t always add just a few years to their age to be Facebook ‘legal’: one of my son’s friends has set himself up as a 40-year old divorcé, so bypassing any protection provided by Facebook. And is a restriction to ‘Friends of Friends’ sufficient? Personally, I wouldn’t want my child connecting to, or sharing with, anyone he didn’t know.
Should Facebook cut its age restriction?
Facebook sets the age limit to 13 to comply with COSSA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), which prohibits website owners from collecting personal data from minors without parental consent. Opening up its site to underage kids would require it to make major changes to how it manages those accounts.
But with so many under 13s already using Facebook, should it lower the age limit so that it can provide them with the protection they need? There were rumours in mid-2012 that it was preparing to do exactly that, and launch accounts for younger children. These would be linked to their parents’ accounts, and give parental control over who the child could friend and what apps they could download. No word yet on if or when such accounts might be launched.
Those of a cynical disposition might see this as more about building new revenue streams than child protection. Some of the reactions to the suggestion of a lowering of the age limit compared Facebook to a drug dealer selling crack cocaine outside school gates. Yet the current situation, with half-hearted policing of its service while millions of pre-teens continue to use the site unprotected isn’t satisfactory either.
Practising ‘safe social’
Whether age restrictions change or not, the ultimate responsibility for Facebook use, or restriction of use, falls to us as parents. We can’t trust Facebook to babysit our kids. So at the very least, we need to educate ourselves on the risks and how to deal with them. We spend time and effort teaching our children about Stranger Danger and how to navigate roads safely, so why would we let them loose in a giant internet playground without understanding what dangers they may face? And I’d argue that applies as much to teens as to the under 13s.
Understand privacy: it’s terrifying how many kids’ accounts are totally open, so posts, photos and friend lists can be read by anyone. If you don’t know how to set privacy levels so only friends can see what your child is sharing, you can find out more here. And it’s important that they understand that even if their account is private, if they comment on the post of a friend whose account isn’t private, their comments can be seen by anyone.
Understand personal data: Facebook requires that your child uses their real name, but they don’t have to put other personal information on their profile, such as age, location or even gender. Talk to them about what’s OK to share and what’s best kept private. A cartoon or a family group photo as a profile picture is also safer than an image that’s easily identifiable as a child.
Understand connections: with your help, your child can set their account so that they can’t be sent friend requests, limiting the risk of connecting with strangers. But it’s also worth a conversation to explain that Facebook’s not a game and there are no prizes for adding as many friends as possible. When I see 10- and 11-year olds with 100+ or even 200+ friends, alarm bells start to ring.
Understand spam and malware: ‘special offers’ that aren’t, links to enticing content that infect your device with malware, dodgy apps that claim to let you know who’s viewed your timeline: Facebook is a popular target for spammers, and even adults regularly get fooled. Encourage your child to think before they click or share, and to talk to you if they see anything suspicious. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If their friend is posting messages that sound strange, it could well be that their account’s been hijacked.
Understand how to ask for help: for many parents, the idea that their child might be bullied or harassed online is the stuff of nightmares but Facebook doesn’t make it obvious how to get help. The button to unfriend, report or block someone is hidden under the down arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of their cover photo, for example:
Similarly, any offensive or upsetting posts can be reported by hovering over the top right hand corner of the post, and clicking on the down arrow. It’s slightly different on mobiles – use the arrow ‘share’ symbol in the top right corner of people’s pages or posts to block or report them. You’ll find more details about Facebook tools for dealing with abuse here.
Luckily for me, my son’s not that interested in Facebook. Yet. But when he does want an account, I’d rather be there alongside him to help him protect himself and understand the risks and responsibilities than have him try to navigate the challenges of Facebook on his own.
If you want more information about how to protect your child’s Facebook account, A Parent’s Guide to Facebook, by Anne Collier and Larry Magid of ConnectSafely.org, is a useful resource that’s updated regularly as Facebook settings change. ConnectSafely is a non-profit organisation that receives financial support from Facebook.