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Many parents OK with under-age Facebook accounts

A Consumer Reports survey earlier this year revealed that more than 7.5 million U.S. Facebook users were under the minimum age of 13, which means that they had to lie about their age in order to sign-up. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Harvard, New York University, and Berkeley has found that an overwhelming majority of those under-age children signed-up with the knowledge and consent of their parents.

With regulators and online privacy groups currently reviewing the legislation which was responsible for setting the minimum age of 13, the findings have left everyone scratching their heads and wondering how effective additional restrictions might be.

The study “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age” explores the often complex relationship between children and their parents when it comes to kids’ online habits and particularly their social networking activity.

Although the majority of parents are aware that there are age restrictions on Facebook, over three-quarters (78 percent) believe that there are circumstances that make it OK for their child to sign-up even if he or she doesn’t meet the minimum age requirement. These reasons include communicating with family members, using it for educational purposes, and because the child’s classmates and friends are already on Facebook.

While parents could give multiple reasons why they would allow their child to violate the Facebook age restrictions, half of parents (50 percent) indicated that such a violation was only OK if their child was under parental supervision. In other words, a violation was acceptable if a parent was monitoring the child’s online behavior.

That is not to say that parents don’t believe there should be a minimum age for Facebook use – an overwhelming majority (89 percent) thought that there should be. However, this just introduces more confusion, as the average minimum age suggested was around 14.9, which is almost two years higher that the existing minimum!

There are several possible reasons for this apparent contradiction. One is that parents believe the minimum age is – or should be – a recommendation rather than a requirement. This would make sense given the huge numbers of parents that are willing to ignore the restrictions.

But it’s also evidence that parents strongly believe that they are the ones that should ultimately have control when it comes to their children’s online activity. In fact, when asked who should have the final say on whether their kids could access online services, 93 percent of parents indicated that it should be them.

Where does all this leave the Federal Trade Commission and the other groups that are looking to revise the 11-year-old Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)? In one sense, they can be thankful that a majority of parents appear to have an interest in their children’s online activity. Whether or not you agree with them encouraging their kids to lie about their age, they are at least involved in the decision-making process.

In a sense, Facebook’s Terms of Service have become mere guidelines: “This is how you are supposed to use the service but in the end it’s up to you.” As many others have found out, It’s very hard to legislate for persuasive 11-year-olds and parents who find it impossible to say no.

Should under-13s be allowed to join Facebook? Should parents have the final say? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Comment by John Thomas, posted 11/3/2011, 4:47 AM:

Bicycles are far more dangerous to a child's safety than Facebook, but we don't legislate 13 age restrictions for riding a bike. Unfortunately COPPA's restrictions are also enforced by US companies like Facebook and Google on users outside the US. It's time to remove these restrictions in favor of recommendations or guidelines.
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