Finding Sensible Social Networking Policies for Children

Published July 28, 2012

Consider this: Internet social networking is the only form of media in the U.S. where age restrictions regarding access are enforced by law.

A cinema can admit a teen under 17 unaccompanied by parent or guardian to an R-rated movie without risk of legal penalty. Likewise, a game shop clerk can sell or rent a video game rated MA or AO to a bunch of 12-year-olds without fear of Officer Friendly tapping his nightstick on the door. Parental advisory labels on CDs are just that – they tell parents that song lyrics are explicit and adult. There’s no law that prevents their sale to minors. Industry participants, from the studio mogul to the shopkeeper on the corner, agree to comply because it allows them address the diverse tastes and maturity of the larger market, yet retain goodwill among parents who wish to be informed media gatekeepers for their own household.

Not so with Internet sites like Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. The Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) sets out specific rules and regulations about how websites can gather and use information about children, with the threat of legal penalties behind them. Facebook, for one, finds these rules so cumbersome that, under its terms of service, children under 13 are not permitted to sign up. If it determines that a user is under 13, Facebook will delete the page. Furthermore, if the Federal Trade Commission determines Facebook is not doing enough to enforce its policy, the company may face considerable fines.

The trouble is, there really is no effective way of verifying age online. It doesn’t help Facebook that a recent report by a team lead by danah boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft and a research assistant director in the Media, Culture and Communication Department at New York University, estimates that 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13, despite its terms of use. At the same time, it doesn’t help the FTC’s case that the same research found that 55 percent of parents of 12-year-olds know their children have Facebook accounts and that 70 percent of those kids had assistance from a parent in setting up their page.

Yet when Facebook, citing these numbers, floated the suggestion that it be allowed to open the site to kids under 13, or perhaps create a partitioned version geared to these so-called “tweens,” the reaction was as if it proposed live streaming of nightly kitten-strangling tournaments.

Parent advocacy groups that should know better, such as the estimable Common Sense Media, immediately rallied to the defense of hard and fast age restrictions. Congressmen Ed Markey (D- MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX), who see a malevolent component in every Internet innovation, immediately called Facebook to account.    

The trouble is, online age verification is largely unworkable, and legal restrictions based on them are all but impossible to enforce. E-commerce sites that sell wine and tobacco can reasonably thwart a high percentage of minors, at least from making purchases, because they require a credit card, something few teens possess. For social networking sites like Facebook that simply require a name and some baseline information, there is no reliable way for them to prove a 13-year- old is indeed a 13-year-old. The company deserves credit for proposing a solution to this problem rather than simply deciding not to make waves over an inefficient piece of legislation.

To gain some clarity, let’s remember that COPPA is aimed at privacy protection. Its motivations stem from concerns over corporate marketing to children, as well as child predation and cyberbullying, which all rank as parental hot buttons when it comes to their kids’ activities online. While the age verification law may have been a response to these concerns, it must also be weighed against the fact that many parents are actively helping their tweens get online. Overall it points to the reality that parents still consider themselves the best and most effective filter for monitoring children’s on-line habits.

Age limits, on the other hand, are among the worst. First of all, they are arbitrary. The traditional 18 and 21 cut-offs are troublesome enough. But at least those can be tied to key transitional events in one’s life, such as graduation from high school or college, and/or achieving full-time employment. Parents of tweens know that the standard deviation of maturity around the mean age of 13 is much higher.

So we might comfortably say that 10-year-olds should not be on social networks, and just as comfortably as we can say 13-year-olds can. It’s in between where it becomes difficult. According to boyd, a common reason that that parents ignore the age mandate is because their kids have birthdays late in the school year. That is, parents don’t want their kids left out as middle-school classmates who turn 13 in September and October move their social circles online. So the law breaks down.

It’s time for lawmakers to admit the ineffectiveness of online age restriction. Social networks are virtual meeting places, just like any real-word public place where kids and adults congregate in groups, be it a shopping mall or public park. By and large, we expect teens and tweens on their own will be safe in these venues, although we do educate them to identify and counteract potential threats. So it must be the case on-line. Arbitrary federal law cannot be a substitute for parental involvement supported by schools, camps and other awareness programs at the local level.

That sites like Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn have been singled out for age-restriction legislation is more an emotional response than a rational one. Lawmakers do consumers no service with kneejerk, close-minded reactions to valid criticism of the enforceability of COPPA’s age restrictions. Instead, they must acknowledge that parents are ignoring the law and give ear to the ideas and proposals that social networks and their users propose. It has worked in the past.

The success of ratings and advisories in other media speaks to both the faith that Americans have in the effectiveness of the market to develop effective ways of helping parents make decisions about the material their children are exposed to. Rather than clamp down on social media through ineffective laws, the government must allow social networking the space to create a similar structure. In the end, it will prove better both at winning buy-in from parents and protecting kids.