Social Networking

Facebook Wants to Hook ‘Em Young

Facebook hopes to one day be permitted to draw young children into the Facebook fold.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently suggested altering legal restrictions that prevent children younger than 13 from signing up for a Facebook account.

Currently, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law passed in 1998, mandates that 13 is the minimum age at which a child may sign up for accounts on sites like Facebook.

Zuckerberg argued that in our increasingly technology-driven society, education in online media is what will set students apart and boost the economy, according to a report in the International Business Times on Monday. He maintained that learning must start at a very young age.

Learning From Facebook?

It’s unclear whether Zuckerberg has plans to facilitate more learning opportunities on his social networking site or if he’s simply targeting a younger crowd of Facebook users.

The Web can indeed be a powerful learning tool, according to Judy Harris Helm, president of Best Practices and an expert in early childhood education.

“Students can interview experts from far away, visit webcams of sites, share their work and connect with other students of the world researching the same topic,” she told TechNewsWorld.

However, there are already numerous sites, activities and teaching tools in place online. Those sites, monitored by teachers, don’t have the same risks as a mostly unrestricted page like a Facebook profile, where personal information is shared and spread in an instant. In this way, children can become victims of Internet bullying or scams.

Educators also worry about the maturity levels of children while navigating the Web.

“Using social networking sites requires focus and control. This is something that children are developing, but it takes a long time to mature. What is more important, when children are under stress, such as angry at a classmate or feeling excluded, their ability to exercise control diminishes, so they lash our and say things they later regret,” Helm added.

Under the Legal Radar

Aside from Zuckerberg’s comment, Facebook has not released any statements indicating it’s gearing up for a legal battle.

It’s a battle they may not have to face, however. Currently, even though federal law prohibits it, children younger than 13 can join Facebook simply by entering a different, earlier birth year.

“I don’t know that Facebook has the power to change the law. But it’s unfortunate that the effect of the law is that most e-commerce companies won’t serve people under 13, and as a result the first exposure kids have to the modern Internet is lying about their age to get on the site in the first place,” Mark A. Lemly, a professor at Stanford Law School with an expertise in technology law, told TechNewsWorld.

Even if kids are lying, some parents tolerate that ruse.

In fact, a recent study from Liberty Mutual‘s Responsibility Project states that the number of parents who say they’d let their 10- to 12-year-old-child open a social media account doubled in the past year. At the same time, parents who monitor their children’s accounts rose to 70 percent in 2011, up from 55 percent the year before.

Facebook hopes parents and educators will continue to keep their eyes on children as young users increase.

“As Mark noted, education is critical to ensuring that people of all ages use the Internet safely and responsibly. We agree with safety experts that communication between parents or guardians and kids about their use of the Internet is vital. We believe that services such as Facebook have a role to play in encouraging this,” Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook, told TechNewsWorld.

Law experts speculate young users will stay under the legal radar, at least in the near future. Although possible to overturn, the protection aspects of COPPA are mostly unopposed.

“Every parent knows that kids under 13 are either using Facebook, or nagging to be allowed to use Facebook, or both. I don’t think, however, that Congress is going to look very favorably on reducing online protections for children in an election year,” A. Michael Froomkin, professor at the University of Miami School of Law with an expertise in Internet law, told TechNewsWorld.

Legislation to take away some of that security is unlikely to gain much public support.

“We protect children from dangers during this time period of growth. We do not allow them to drive a car. We do not allow them to drink alcohol. We do this because they do not have the maturity to inhibit or control their behavior. Children do not need this,” said Helm.

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