Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Facebook Decision

Recently our almost-12-year-old presented us with a beautifully written entreaty on why we should let her get a Facebook (FB) account. This isn’t the first time it has been discussed in our house but it was the first time that we were ready to take the request seriously. In the past we have said "not until high school," which is still a couple of years away.  This time we were ready to negotiate.  In part because of her well thought out discussion points and partly because of the kid she is.  Thus far she has stayed out of the girl drama that goes on with this age group. She has been responsible with email and  understands some of the risks that exist in cyberspace. Just this year many of her friends have started accounts and right now she is worried about maintaining contact when she changes schools in a few months time. 

While I had a mental list of pros and cons, I still took to the internet to get an idea of just how other parents were making this decision and what factors were being considered.  I found many excellent tips on internet safety and helping your kids be smarter about social networking but I found nothing about making that initial tough decision to set up a FB account for you child.  For that reason, I am sharing our experience and decision. 

Why we wanted to say yes: 

  • Social networking is a fun, everyday part of her parent's lives.
  • FB presents opportunities for connection with relatives and friends who are far away. Many of our friends and family have accounts including my daughter’s 90 year old grandmother. 
  • It makes it easy to share political ideas, news and humour with each other. 
  • I already post family pictures visible only to my (carefully chosen) FB friends. I've gotten over any angst I had a decade ago about sharing photos or personal information to a limited online audience. 
  • My daughter belongs to several respectable organizations that have their own FB pages including girl guides and youth group. 

Why we thought we should say no: 

  • Her social skills, including conflict resolution and problem solving, are still young and developing. These are skills that we want to see greatly strengthened before unleashing her in the wilds of social networking. 
  • She could become a victim of cyber bullying. Realistically she could also become a perpetrator. She is a well-intended kid but we can’t trust that she will always know how to handle herself when emotions get heated or someone zings her first. 

The decision finally came down to her age. 

All of those pros and cons will still need to be considered after she turns 13.  But for now, FB rules explicitly state that you must be 13 years or older to have an account. In fact, they provide direction on how to delete your under-age child's account or how to report an account of someone under 13.

I’m not a rule follower by nature.. more of a rule challenger actually. However as a parent I have always tried to take the approach that if we don’t think the rule is a good one or a fair one… then we need to challenge it through the appropriate channels, not just break it.

For several years now I have grappled with the idea that kids have to lie about their age to get a FB account before the age of 13. Often it is their parents lying as they help them to sign up. I’ve assumed though that those parents have rationalized that it is a stupid rule and who cares what Mark Zuckerberg thinks is appropriate anyway? Parents are in fact the expert on their own kids and should be able to decide if they think it is okay for their children to have an account. Right?

Yet I don't want my daughter to lie about her age.  Not now. Not when she is 16 and trying to buy beer. Not when she meets a cute older guy and wants him to think she is older too.

And yes, I was a teen and NEWSFLASH.... I lied sometimes! Probably about all of the above. No real harm came to me as a result. The vast majority of children won’t be harmed because they lied about their age to get a FB account. However, even when I lied as a teen… I was always secure in the knowledge that my parents would never have condoned it. There is safety in that boundary. While I hope I am raising a girl who will challenge injustice and advocate against rules that cause harm,   I don't want to be the parent who says it's okay just to ignore the rules and do what you want.

So I was grappling with this age rule.  I was curious about FB's rationale for not “allowing” children under 13 to have an account, at least in theory.  It is well known that as many as one third of FB accounts belonging to those 18 and younger actually belong to children under 13.

Here are a few recent stats from  Consumer Reports :
  • Of the 20 million minors who actively used FB in the past year, 7.5 million—or more than one-third—were younger than 13.
  • Among young users, more than 5 million were 10 and under, and their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents.
  • One million children were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyber bullying on the site in the past year.  (2011)
So then I concluded… Mark Zukerberg actually doesn’t care. In fact, it is clear that FB actually wants kids on line yet wants to give the appearance that they are protecting children.  That is why they provide this safety information for parents  and these instructions for reporting underage accounts.

Digging deeper… I realized that the rule is in place because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act  (COPPA). This is a US law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission . COPPA is all about protecting children under 13 from specific advertising,  having their private information made public or accessible for exploitation by marketers.

According to this article written by Tim Banks in January 2013, Canada contains no equivalent to COPPA.  However, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) seems to be developing some child privacy guidelines for advertisers and for websites that use tracking technologies. 

So what does all this mean for me, the parent?

I want laws to protect my child on line. I support COPPA and I am pleased to know that that on July 1, 2013 even further rules are coming into place that protect children's privacy.   I realized that letting my daughter have a FB account before she turns 13 essentially indicates that I  am willing to help advertisers gain direct access to her despite the laws in place to prevent that. Since I believe our children need more protections on line, not less, this approach made no sense to me.

It is important to know that:

  • From a marketing perspective, FB wants your children to have accounts... and will target them with specific ads developed just for them.  You child under 13 will be have the privacy protections of any other minor between 13-17 but not the privacy protections developed for children younger than 13.
  • Between the ages of 13-17 FB limits access to accounts in order to protect the privacy of minors
  • Minors can not receive messages from strangers (unless they are “friends of friends”); unlike adult account holders, who can be messaged by anyone.
  • Minors' photos and status updates are only visible to “friends” and “friends of friends” if they choose to make their accounts “public”. Their posts and pictures are not visible to anyone else.
  • On the day that the account holder appears to turn 18 years old,  FB notifies the account holder that they are now considered an adult and their previous privacy restrictions will automatically change. Sounds good right?  But let’s imagine you set up a FB account for your 9 year old and you indicated that she was 13. Then on the day of her 14th birthday, FB will think she is 18. Everything on her page could become public and none of the safeguards in place to protect minors will apply to her account any longer. If she had previously allowed “friends of friends” to see her photos… those photos could be available to anyone in the world with a computer. She may not have the awareness to know she needs to change her settings or why that is important.

There are about a million big and little decisions we make as parents from the moment our kids are born or adopted into our lives. The Facebook Decision is just one and the answer that was right in our family may not be the right choice in yours, but I thought it might help to share some of the factors that we considered.

In the end, we didn't have to get in to a complicated explanation of privacy laws and ethics.  A few days after her proposal to us about FB... our daughter came home from school and shared that one of her classmates had her account "hacked" and a stranger had posted pornography on her pages. The same week there was a news report of a local 12-year-old girl facing criminal charges due to online bullying. Those incidents were enough to put the conversation at rest for a while.