Facebook has a rule: To have an account on the site, you have to be at least 13 years old. It's a rule that not everyone follows. Over half of the 12-year-olds in a new study have Facebook accounts and it's usually a parent who helped them set that up.
Danah Boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research; she also teaches at New York University. She says parents just think it's OK if kids participate: "For a lot of parents, social media is a part of everyday life and they want their children to have access to these services. Sometimes they want access in order for their kids to communicate with Grandma or with them. Sometimes they want it because they think it's really important that they help their kids learn how to navigate these spaces. Sometimes they think it's perfectly acceptable for them to be using these sites to communicate with their friends. All of these are perfectly legit reasons and they want to have final say over what their children may or may not access online."
Mark Canter of Cleveland, Ohio, has set up accounts for his 7-year-old and his 9-year-old. He says he didn't agonize over it much. "They really wanted to be on Facebook," he says. "And my experience as a parent is when you tell some kid they can't do it, that makes them want it more."
Of course for Canter, that meant not telling the truth about his kids. "Absolutely we lied. And we're telling them the reason why (Facebook) is saying you can't be on there. We have to politely explain to them what a predator was, what were these negative things that could happen and why they don't want to respond to people they don't know."
The rule exists because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. It was established in 1998. "The idea," says Boyd, "was that any commercial website that collected data about children under the age of 13 would need to get parent permission. And it was extremely well-intended legislation. The challenge is that in implementation, it was extremely difficult for companies to comply. There were technical issues, questions of free speech, there were economic issues, it was expensive to comply. And so what a lot of these companies decided to do, is that rather than deal with complexities of complying with COPPA, they just decided they would restrict access to children 13 or younger."
But kids still wanted to get on, parents were OK with them getting on, and so the kids and parents simply lied. It's not the only way, according to Boyd, that COPPA has been ineffective. "The questions about privacy have only gotten more complicated," she says. "The result of which is that while most of the goals a decade ago would have focused on vulnerable populations in the form of children, in many ways, everybody's vulnerable and confused about what's happening with their data online. So all of these attempts to focus specifically on children don't succeed in supporting adults who are in many ways themselves confused about what's happening with their data."