Children under 13 aren’t supposed to use Facebook. We project from our survey that the company closed about 800,000 such accounts in the last year.
But some 5.6 million underage kids still have accounts, our survey suggests. And 800,000 minors were harassed or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook.
Our survey also shows that most parents who knew their preteen used Facebook had not discussed online threats with them or “friended” them, while up to a third did nothing to keep up with their children’s Facebook activities.
Targets: 11- to 13-year-olds. The least vigilant parents in our survey were those with children under 13 on Facebook. “The kids most often targeted are 11- to 13-year-olds, because they’re more naive and less likely to tell an adult about it,” says Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Its Child Predator Unit recently charged William Ainsworth, 53, with using phony Facebook identities to lure hundreds of girls as young as 11, whose profiles revealed that they were vulnerable because of trouble at home or school. Ainsworth allegedly solicited nude photos from some and arranged to meet for sex. He has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators interviewed more than 30 girls; almost all said they were using Facebook with little or no parental knowledge when they communicated with the predator. Most used cell phones or other mobile devices, making supervision difficult.
An elusive solution. The Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits sites from collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from preteens without parental consent. The Federal Trade Commission proposed changes last year for children who use child-oriented sites, which include improving methods for securing parents’ permission. Final recommendations are expected by year’s end.
But the new rules wouldn’t require sites with a more diverse audience, such as Facebook, to try to verify the age of someone who opens an account.
In a recent study published by the University of Illinois at Chicago, more than 80 percent of parents said they’d known when their underage child had signed up for Facebook. The study implied that one strong privacy standard for adults and children would be better than two, since with two policies kids may pretend to be older than they are.
Jeff Chester, a child-privacy advocate who led the campaign to enact COPPA, wants the FTC and Congress to consider a different option. He thinks Facebook should create a section for children under 13 and require opt-in parental permission, as COPPA requires.
We asked Facebook for its views about such an option. “We see ourselves as innovators, and believe it is time to focus on how to keep kids safe online and on Facebook, rather than on how to keep them off,” a spokesman replied in an e-mail.
What you can do. If your young teenager wants to join Facebook, insist that he or she “friend” you, says Colleen Cronin of East Hampton, Conn., who interceded when she found evidence of bullying among children in her son Cameron's Facebook network. Monitor kids’ activity. Make sure that they really know their “friends” and that they set the audience for all wall postings to “friends” only.