Last week I had the pleasure of attending the excellent Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, where I was speaking on a panel: ‘Facebook Stole my Childhood’, examining the issues thrown up by marketing to children within social networks. The Children’s Media Conference is one of my favourite yearly events – in part because it’s not wholly about social media, so I get to look at my own field from a different perspective, but also just because everyone there is just so friendly and welcoming.
I had honestly expected a degree of dissention within my panel: ably chaired by Jo Twist (Commissioning Editor for Education , Channel 4), I was up there alongside writer Henry Becket, James Charlton of The Advertising Association, Barbie Clarke from Family Kids and Youth and Ian Douthwaite, the Head of youth research organisation, Dubit. All of whom could be expected to have a different angle on child internet safety from my own. However, whilst the panel was, I hope, informative and lively, we all came out at pretty much the same place on particular issue: on whether Facebook should be opened up to the under 13′s.
For those who don’t know, there’s a reason for why 13 is the magic number, and that’s due to COPPA. In brief, as most sites are available in the US, they fall under the umbrella of COPPA, a US Federal law relating to online social networks, chat and gaming sites aimed at children. Every site, game or community that has u13s as members must gain verifiable parental consent, and parents must be able to access the information their children have input. See more details on ‘Check’ – a really useful reference site for anyone involved in marketing to children.
So that’s why Facebook (and Bebo, and MySpace) is only open to over age 13 and over. But as everyone knows, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist, and 38% of European 9-12 yr olds have a social networking profile (20% on Facebook)* Just in case your maths lessons happened a while ago, that’s one in five 9 to 12′s with Facebook profile. Some of these profiles have been set up with the knowledge and help of their parents, and some have been set up secretly. I’ve no doubt that a number of children have two profiles – a ‘safe’ one where they friend their folks and behave like good cybercitizens – and the real profile where they say and do what they want with whom they choose.
Many people don’t realise this, but if you register as under 18 on Facebook, then the Facebook privacy settings work a little differently. Like adults, people under 18 can appear in search results on Facebook. Also, applications that they and their friends use and people who navigate to their profile will see their basic information (name, profile picture, gender and networks). But a public search listing will not be created for them, and even if they select the ‘Everyone’ setting, photos and status updates can actually be seen only by their friends, friends of friends, and people in a verified school or work network they have joined.
The problem is that when kids are lying about their age in order to get registered, they don’t always choose to pretend to be under 18. Which means that even these basic safeguards are not being applied.
A couple of months ago Mark Zuckerberg was reported to have said that Facebook should be open to children under 13. Although perhaps he wasn’t really quite that gung-ho about it: “If children under 13 ever were [allowed to get on Facebook] we’d need to find a way for them to be safe,” he said, reported the Wall Street Journal. “We haven’t gone there yet, but over time it’s an important dialogue to have”.
On the panel at the Children’s Media Conference, we broadly agreed. Social networking for our children is now an important part of their psychological development, whether we like it or not. My fellow panellist, Dr Barbie Clarke, says in her co-authored paper for ‘Mind the Gap’ (another session at the conference) “A necessary skill to learn in adolescence is to negotiate social worlds, confronting difficult situations, and finding out about power play. It can be argued that the use of social networking using digital technology with which early adolescents are so engaged is a superb way to learn these skills.”
However, the paper goes on: “While there are many positive aspects of children using social networking, dangers undoubtedly exist, and not just the infiltration of online predators, but also cyberbullying and accessing disturbing or inappropriate material. While children are open about their lives, and want to share their worlds, they could potentially be putting themselves at risk, causing them emotional distress.”
It’s foolish to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that children aren’t joining Facebook. And wrong to think also that there is no potential harm in them doing so and being exposed to adult content, to ‘friends’ who may wish them harm, to cyberbullying.
If a version of Facebook – Facebook with stabilisers but still ‘cool’ – could be created which would have default filters, no advertising, parental involvement, lockdown easy-to-understand privacy settings for those aged 10 -14, then perhaps we would be doing our best to provide children with the benefits of social networking and the training they need to negotiate an adolescence which will have social networking at its core.
Update 18 July 2011: DigitalME, the education social enterprise, just launched a ‘debate hub’ on the topic – come and read the zeitgeist and add your own view here.
* Research from EU Kids Online http://www2.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/EUKidsSNSPressRelease.pdf