A new study reports that many kids under the age of 13 are lying to obtain Facebook accounts -- often with the consent or knowledge of their parents or guardians.
In cooperation with Microsoft Research, members of the U.S academic community recently surveyed 1,007 parents and guardians of children from age 10 to 14 years. More than 70 percent of the survey's respondents said they believe there are circumstances under which it would be OK for their children to sign up for a service for which they did not meet the minimum age requirements.
Among the parents who reported having a child on Facebook, 72 percent said that their son or daughter had joined the social networking service when under the age of 13. Moreover, 68 percent to 78 percent with children ages 10 to 12 said they had even helped their offspring set up Facebook accounts.
Half the parents and guardians participating in the survey indicated it was OK for their child to violate the age restriction as long as it was done under parental supervision.
"In other words, many parents felt as though the violation was acceptable because they were monitoring their children's online practices," the report's authors wrote in the peer-reviewed journal First Monday. "However, they do so at the cost of their children's privacy and at the risk of acting unethically -- and potentially in violation of the law."
What Parents Know
Under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) enacted in 1998 and made final by a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rulemaking in 2000, Web site operators must obtain parental consent before creating accounts for children under the age of 13. Instead of creating a mechanism for complying with the new law, however, Facebook and other popular Web sites "have chosen to avoid these obligations by banning all those younger than 13 through the terms of service contracts to which new users must consent," the report's authors wrote.
Nevertheless, survey organizations such as Pew Research say there are already millions of underage children on Facebook.
"This discrepancy prompted us to ask what parents know about underage children's participation on Facebook," the report's authors noted. "Our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age -- in fact, often help them to do so."
The most common explanation given by respondents for why there should be any age restriction to joining a social-networking site was "I don't know." Other responses ranged between "because it is more for adults" to "due to adult content and language" and "to protect minors from perverts."
Parental Ratings Preferred
A majority, 57 percent, of parents and guardians were in favor of placing restrictions on what information social-network sites can collect about their children -- even if it means that children in general will be banned from social-network sites. Furthermore, 48 percent believe the government should require all Web sites and online services to provide parents with a recommended age rating, similar to movie ratings such as PG or PG-13.
But laws that mandate strict age requirements for accessing the Internet put many parents in an uncomfortable position. That explains why 35 percent of the survey's respondents were opposed to the U.S. government playing a role in restricting how children could access Web sites and online services.
"What is clear here is that parents prefer governmental policies that provide information or guidance instead of policies that create restrictions [and that many parents] do not want the government involved in any way," wrote the report's authors, Danah Boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz and John Palfrey.