A new study from Harvard, New York University and Berkeley researchers finds 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." The finding comes even after a Facebook executive told the Senate that it wasn't allowed, so it's no wonder how lots of underage kids are signing up for social media accounts with little trouble. Opinions are mixed about the restrictions put in place (and currently under review) by the Federal Trade Commission that forbid young kids from joining sites like Facebook, but some of the potential consequences — like child pornography, contact with pedophiles and bullying — are deeply disturbing.
Though the specific figures vary, the number of under-age kids on Facebook is in the millions. In May, a Consumer Reports annual survey reported that 17.5 million children under the age of 13, the minimum as determined by the FTC's Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), were using Facebook regularly. Published Tuesday in the internet-research journal First Monday, the new study "Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age" explores the role of parents in helped lower that number suggests that the number is even higher today, perhaps because of COPPA's unintended consequences. On average, 87 percent parents knew their 9- to 12-years-old kids signed up for an account and 66 percent of the parents helped their kids lie about their age to skirt around Facebook's terms and conditions.
Problematically, Facebook says that the onus of preventing kids from breaking the rules is partially on the parents. "Just as parents are always teaching and reminding kids how to cross the road safely," Noyes recently told The Atlantic Wire, "talking about internet safety should be just as important a lesson to learn." However, Noyes supports these kinds of research efforts. "The report makes important points particularly in relation to parents that actively assist their children under 13 in joining Facebook even though they know it violates our policy," he said in an email.
Parents obviously can't be the last resort, though. Facebook's chief technology officer Bret Taylor faced a grilling in May from the Senate commerce subcommittee for, among other things, the social network's failing to keep underage kids off of their site. If young children are able to set up a Facebook profile, critics say, they become easy targets for pedophiles and potentially child pornography rings. We ran a quick test, and it appears that Facebook still hasn't developed an age verification process that keeps underage users from signing up. However, age verification is a hard problem that Facebook says they're still working to solve.
"As many safety advocates note, it is difficult to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don't circumvent a system or lie about their age," Facebook's Andrew Noyes says. "We appreciate the attention being given to this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online."
Still, skepticism mounts over whether Facebook would actually rather just change COPPA's rules, which were written long before Facebook in the late 1990s, than find a solution. Mark Zuckerberg took heat earlier this year for suggesting that these regulations ought to be changed. "That will be a fight we take on at some point," he said. Facebook's Noyes reiterated that point by telling us, "We remain supportive of the FTC's efforts to modernize COPPA so that companies can innovate and keep young people of all ages safe online." At the Senate hearings, however, one witness scolded Facebook's Taylor for not taking children's safety more seriously. "Instead of spending your money on hiring PR firms to take down your competitors, you should be spending it on developing innovative technology to protect our kids," she said. To swing the door back in the other direction, one of the First Monday story's authors, Microsoft researcher and NYU professor Dana Boyd, suggests that COPPA's backfiring. "It was meant to empower parents to have these conversations with their kids," says Boyd. "It was meant to encourage exactly what happens as a result of lying."
Creating a profile is not the be-all and end-all of access to Facebook, however. The social network has mechanisms in place that are designed to spot suspicious activity once you start poking around the site, uploading photos, sending friend requests and so forth. If their anti-abuse robots and cookies decide that you're underage, Facebook will close the account.
However, a lot can go wrong in the meantime. Parents and lawmakers alike worry that once they had created profiles, the kids would then innocently upload pictures that would end up on the screens of pedophiles prowling the social network. The company has been implementing custom-made Microsoft software than scans the site for potentially pornographic photos in an effort not only to deter but also identify pedophiles. They're also building technology to prevent bullying, after a number of young people have committed suicide after being teased on social networks.
Start-ups have also started building technology to address the age verification process. Boston-based Tru.ly uses a process that checks user-supplied data against private databases of the same government data used for things like credit scores, to confirm age information. If the data exist because you're not old enough to have a credit record, then you're denied access. You might also run into trouble if you're from another country, or if you're like Steve Jobs and simply try to avoid being tracked by the U.S. government altogether.
Of course, all of these systems fall apart when parents are helping their children get full access to Facebook and not keeping track of how they're using it. The problem of underage kids ending up on sites they shouldn't is also not just limited to Facebook, nor is it the specific responsibility of the government, the social network or parents to find a solution. Bad parenting doesn't help, though. And remember: bad things happen to kids with bad parents.