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Facebook Gives Teens a Longer Leash

By Richard Adhikari
Oct 18, 2013 8:20 AM PT

Facebook on Thursday made two seemingly contradictory changes to its settings for teen users. On one hand, it narrowed the audience that can see teens' posts by default; at the same time, however, it made it possible for the first time for teens to open up their posts to the public at large.

Facebook Gives Teens a Longer Leash

Until now, the default audience for posts made by kids aged 13 through 17 was "friends of friends," and kids had the option to change it. Now, the initial setting will be the narrower set of "friends."

Far more controversial, however, has been the new ability for teens to make their posts visible to the public as well as to use the "Follow" feature, which lets people automatically receive posts from other users even if they are strangers.

'Classic Bait and Switch'

Teens' new public access immediately sparked concern because of its potential to expose teenagers more readily to bullies, sexual predators and marketers.

Sex offenses linked to Facebook or Twitter have surged over the past four years, UK newspaper The Mirror reported in April, noting also that pedophiles are increasingly logging onto social network sites to target children.

Facebook also figures prominently in cyberbullying, with 64 percent of the victims reporting they were harassed on the social networking site, privacy-focused social network Sgrouples states.

Cyberbullying has driven several teenagers to suicide, the most recent victim being Florida 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick.

"What Facebook has done is classic bait and switch -- fake the public into thinking they've added more privacy when in fact they've taken a whole layer away and put teenagers at greater risk for cyberbullying," Sgrouples CEO Mark Weinstein told TechNewsWorld.

On the other hand, "I don't see kids posting everything -- or even that much -- to the public," remarked John Simpson, consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog.

Storm in a Teacup?

In fact, the changes might actually be for the better, Simpson told TechNewsWorld.

The old default setting of sharing with friends of friends "could be a huge number of people," Simpson pointed out. "Now the default is to share just with friends."

The original setting "encompasses a huge number of people, some of whom are unsavory at best," Simpson continued.

Further, teenagers are increasingly migrating to services like Tumblr and Twitter that don't require them to use their real names so as to avoid parental oversight, "so I'm not sure how many are going to want to turn on for all to see," remarked Justin Brookman, director of the consumer privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Those who choose to make their posts public will see pop-up reminders warning the post can be seen by anyone.

It's not likely that Facebook will run afoul of laws established to protect kids online. California requires that kids should be able to erase social media content, but "Facebook already has in place tools for users to go back and erase stuff," Brookman pointed out.

Facebook did not respond to our request for further details.

Working Hard for the Money

Facebook probably relaxed its rules for teenage posters to drive engagement and compete with other services such as Tumblr and Twitter, where teens can already share posts publicly, the CDT's Brookman told TechNewsWorld.

"More engagement is good for advertising revenue, but I'm not sure it really matters to Facebook whether the sharing is private or public," Brookman pointed out.

Teenagers are sharing more personal information on social media sites, Pew Internet has found.

That would make them better targets for marketers, and Facebook's online marketing efforts are paying off handsomely. Click-through rates, which show how consumers interact with ads, increased by a factor of 3.75 year over year in Q3, figures from Nanigans indicate.

Keep an Eye Peeled

Parents should monitor what their kids do online, whether or not it's public, Brookman said.

"In some ways," he concluded, "the less public stuff is of more concern."

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