Parents help kids lie to get on Facebook

Most underage Facebook users are joining the site with the full knowledge – and even help – of their parents.

While Facebook sets a minimum age for membership of 13, millions of younger children have signed up all the same, according to a new report.

Almost all parents of ten-year-olds signing up for the site – 95 percent – were aware of what their children were doing, and 78 percent of those helped them do it.

“Although many sites restrict access to children, our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age — in fact, often help them to do so — in order to gain access to age–restricted sites in violation of those sites’ ToS,” the authors write.

“This is especially true for general–audience social media sites and communication services such as Facebook, Gmail, and Skype, which allow children to connect with peers, classmates, and family members for educational, social, or familial reasons.”

The reason for the age restriction is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits companies from collecting information from children under 13. But, say the researchers, it’s far from clear whether COPPA’s been effective, and even whether parents have found it understandable or helpful.

There’s no doubt that kids can put a great deal of pressure on their parents to join early – and I’m speaking from experience here. And many parently can’t see that it’s particularly risky.

“I know that Facebook isn’t meant for children under the age of 13, but I’m not sure what the harm is in letting my daughter join,” said one mother cited in the report.

“She’s mature for her age and our computer is in the living room and I could require her to be ‘with me. Am I a bad mother if I let my 11–year–old on Facebook?”

The survey found that 55 percent of 12-year-olds, 32 percent of 11-year-olds and 19 percent of 10-year-olds were active Facebook members.

The authors suggest that the COPPA rules may need re-examination, given that they appear only to be encouraging parents to lie. Universal, rather than age-based, privacy protecitons might make more sense, they say.

The full report is here.