Should Facebook allow access by young children?

Facebook is testing new features that would give children under 13 access to the giant social network, according to a report published Monday in the Wall Street Journal. Although one version of this new program would require children to have accounts that are linked to an adult so that supervision is easier, some parents have raised concerns about allowing pre-teens access the network at all due to Facebook’s past handling of privacy-related issues. Others, however, argue that plenty of younger children already access Facebook anyway despite the 13-year-old age limit, and that Facebook is wise to make it official.
In fact, the widespread flouting of the 13-year-old limit — a survey by Consumer Reports found that more than 7 million children under that age are on the network — is described as one of the primary motivations behind the proposed changes. The Journal quotes sources “familiar with the matter” as saying that Facebook is afraid it could face governmental scrutiny because of the large numbers of younger users who access the network, in many cases with the help or knowledge of their parents. The company has already been criticized and sanctioned by regulators a number of times over its handling of privacy.

Zuckerberg has said he wants to appeal to younger users

Facebook didn’t confirm that it is working on the kind of features described by the Wall Street Journal, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said in the past that the issue of allowing younger users access to the network was “a fight we [will] take on at some point.” And a comment from the company suggested that it is aware of — and concerned about — the problem of unauthorized access by kids. As a spokesman told the newspaper:

Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.

When I asked the people who follow me on Twitter for their thoughts on the proposed changes, one of the main arguments for not allowing children under 13 to access the social network was that they aren’t old enough to make appropriate decisions for themselves — about what to share with others, what content they should comment on, what kind of behavior is appropriate, and so on — and that many parents might not supervise them properly. Some said they were concerned children would find ways around any restrictions Facebook might impose, such as requiring parental approval for friending other users or posting content.
On a related point, some parents said they were worried about the permanence of Facebook content, and the impact that over-sharing or other bad decisions by younger children might have on their lives as they get older. Just as some university-age users have found that their behavior on the social network can cause problems for them as they apply for jobs, some parents say they don’t want the questionable choices their children might make as 10-year-olds to impact the way their families or friends or others see them. As one child advocacy group told the Journal:

The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling.

Is it better to train kids early for online life?

The opposing argument is that social networks and the way they affect our lives are things that children are going to have to come to grips with sooner or later, and therefore it’s better to introduce them to the concept gradually rather than blocking them from it until a pre-determined age like 13. Provided Facebook gives parents enough controls over what their children see and do, this theory goes, allowing kids access to the network not only has positive benefits — since it allows them to connect with family and friends more easily — but can provide a good training ground for broader lessons about internet behavior.
Supporters of this viewpoint point out that most children are already capable of accessing plenty of other much more questionable internet sites without their parents’ knowledge, and that this can cause far bigger problems than Facebook ever could. Allowing kids access to the social network would be a better alternative in many ways, they argue.
On a personal note, I allowed my youngest daughter — now 14 — to set up a Facebook account before she turned 13, even though I knew that this was against the site’s terms of service. At the time, I felt that she was more than capable of handling the responsibilities of being on the network, and I thought it was important that she develop the skills of doing so in a relatively safe environment like Facebook. She also knew that I would be friending her and would be able to see her behavior online (and she has two older sisters who I knew would help me keep an eye on her as well, which made a big difference).
Is it better to try and stop younger users from joining networks like Facebook until they reach a certain age, even if we know that large numbers of them are going to do so anyway? Or is Facebook better off making it easy for them and then requiring certain restrictions on what they do, so that they — and their parents — can get ahead of the problem? Let us know what you think in the comments, or by taking the poll below:
[polldaddy poll=6286197]
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users James Emery and Dutchmassive