A federal law aimed at protecting the privacy of children under 13 has instead resulted in millions of kids lying about their age -- often with their parents' knowledge -- in order to join Facebook, social media guru Danah Boyd says in a new report.
Facebook officially bans kids under 13 -- a move that Boyd attributes to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits publishers from collecting personal information from users 12 and under without their parents' permission. Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and a research assistant professor at New York University, argues that many parents are aware of the age limit, but think their children should have access to the social networking service, even if that means lying to Facebook about their ages.
What's more, she says, unless the Federal Trade Commission changes its approach to COPPA, parents will continue to help their children get around the sites' age limits. “As long as the emphasis of the regulatory approach remains on age–based cutoffs and onerous consent mechanisms, it is likely that general–purpose Web sites will continue to block access to anyone under the age cutoff,” the report states. “In response, parents who wish for their children to participate on such sites will continue to assist their children in deceptively circumventing such restrictions. This is neither a solution to privacy and online safety concerns nor a way of empowering parents.”
The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported last year that nearly half (46%) of 12-year-olds say they use social networking sites. Boyd followed up on that report by investigating parents' views toward children's use of the service. Boyd surveyed 1,000 parents of children ages 10-14 about their kids' Facebook use (Harris Interactive collected the data from parents in July.)
Around one in three of the parents surveyed said that their children joined Facebook when they were younger than 13. Two-thirds of that group said they helped their children to do so.
What's more, 78% of all parents surveyed said there are times when it's okay for their children to join a site even when they're younger than the site's age requirement. “These reasons include communicating with parents, other family members, and friends; use of the service for educational purposes; and, because the child’s classmates use the service,” the report says.
Boyd concludes that COPPA is turning parents into potential scofflaws. “Rather than providing parents and children with greater options for controlling the use of youth personal information as they expand their online activities, it appears that in many circumstances, COPPA has encouraged limitations on children’s access to online services,” the report says. “In response, parents are, in fact, taking matters into their own hands to circumvent these restrictions; however, they do so at the cost of their children’s privacy and at the risk of acting unethically and potentially in violation of the law.”
But privacy advocate Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says that the answer isn't to weaken COPPA but for Facebook to revise its practices. “Facebook could create a system where children could join under the fair rules established by COPPA,” says Chester, who lobbied for the bill. “It's Facebook's fault if parents and children need to lie about their age because it doesn't want to embrace privacy safeguards appropriate for youth."
Boyd's report comes several weeks after the Federal Trade Commission proposed broadening then COPPA regulations to ban companies from using behavioral targeting techniques on children under 13 without their parents' permission.