As a mother of two college students and two tween boys, I absolutely understand the urge to give children what they want. Right now, in this world of digital media and instant gratification, that ‘want’ is to be on a social network with their friends. Most children, as you know, use Facebook as that social network despite the fact that Facebook is, for all intents and purposes, meant for adults.
I know that convincing your kids that Facebook isn’t for them can be fruitless, and blocking Facebook on your home computer or their mobile phone only works for so long (they’ll access it one way or another). But keep in mind, being vigilant doesn’t necessarily mean being overprotective or over reactive. As parents, the best thing we can do is educate our children as much as possible, and the only way to do that is by educating ourselves first. Once we’ve educated ourselves, then we can give our children what they need: a good understanding of the safety and privacy risks that they become vulnerable to when participating on an adult-intended social network like Facebook.
Below are three real concerns to bring to your child’s attention.
When talking about online privacy, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the jargon, especially with so much attention on Google lately. Terms such as cookies, tracking and geotagging are worth learning about for educational purposes, but the guts of the issue, especially as it relates to your child, really comes down to what your child is sharing online with others.
Are they casually giving out their home address? Are they posting the name of their school on Facebook? Are they announcing to everyone that they recently changed their cell phone number? Because Facebook is a social network for adults where open networking is encouraged, questions like these are integrated right into the sign up process. As you can imagine, this is where a child’s privacy and safety become jeopardized.
The important thing to realize here is that children will willingly give out this information, though it’s not required of them, just because they were asked. Why do children do this? Well, I have to believe that, at the core, children don’t know the actual value of their online privacy, nor do they know that they shouldn’t provide this information because, frankly, no one has educated them about the fact that it’s not a good idea. Most children aren’t aware that what they put out there on the Internet leaves a trail; that employers and colleges now have access to seven years worth of public social media activity, and that what they do online now can haunt them for a really long time.
2. Inappropriate Content
Regardless of having what I have to believe is a large team of content moderators, Facebook has become notorious for allowing inappropriate content to live on their network. In the past, groups like NAMBLA (The North American Man-Boy Love Association) have been allowed to exist on Facebook, only to come down after national news headlines. Facebook “communities” such as Smash or Pass continue to live on the site despite their distasteful, Facemash-esque approach to voting on photos of adults, teens and children. And though they know millions of children are using the site, Facebook still allows game applications like Sims Social, where players are incentivized for having cyber sex, to exist on their site.
These examples aren’t meant to cause panic or upset you, they’re only meant to prove a point. My intention is to create awareness about what’s really out there. The online world is just a magnified version of what’s happening in the real world, but our children have such easy access to it all, and that’s why we need educate ourselves.
Many parents don’t know that content like this even exists, let alone on a giant social network like Facebook. In comparison to the real world, you, I and most parents are aware that there are predators out there, that there are scam artists who will try to approach you on the street or over the phone, and we know what these people look like and how they act. We’re able to take these survival skills and teach them to our children, but most parents can’t say the same for the Internet.
Simply put: By allowing your child (13 and under) to join Facebook, you’re not only encouraging the act of lying, you’re allowing them to break an Internet privacy law called The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. COPPA, though outdated and in much need of repair, was put in place for a reason: to protect the personal information of children online—and for good reason!
Without getting into too much detail, Facebook and Google have been facing a lot of scrutiny from the FTC and the general public regarding the collection of user personal information. In fact, the FTC recently slapped Facebook with a privacy audit due to “unfair and deceptive practices” regarding Facebook user privacy. This all ties into what I mentioned above regarding tracking, cookies, etc, and you can read more about it here. Furthermore, it’s important to understand that these companies are protected by laws that allow them to track and collect the web-browsing habits of any consenting adult. This information is then used to create a more user-specific experience for that person, among other things. Laws like COPPA are in place to prevent them from doing the same to children. With that being said, if your child lies about their age and says they’re over 13 in order to join Facebook, they’re automatically including themselves in that group of willing participants.