I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I’ve considered deleting my account on several occasions because, believe it or not, I’m a pretty private person. Though I sometimes find it fascinating to see what people I knew 20 years ago are doing now. Oftentimes, they were more interesting in my imagination than they are in reality (I’m not talking about you, of course). That said, now I’m stuck with Facebook as long as my daughter has a Facebook page.
I made her wait until she turned 13 to set one up — because Facebook requires kids to be that age before they have a page. Despite this, according to a Consumer Reports estimate, 12.5 million Facebookers are under the age of 13 (and that was in May 2011 — there are probably many more now). Thus, millions of kids have lied about their ages to partake of this social media platform (or their parents have done so for them).
I don’t really have a problem with lying about age — I did it as a teen in order to buy beer and get into clubs — though I was only occasionally successful. On Facebook, there are no suspicious sales clerks or bouncers. There’s only a spot where you type in the year of your birth. And it’s easy to put whatever date you desire in that box.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg created some controversy last spring when he publicly said that Facebook might explore how to let kids younger than 13 on the site. This, despite the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which supposedly keeps personal information from being gathered online from kids younger than 13 without parental consent. The idea is that a parent would need to send a signature or credit card verification in order for their kids to use sites that collect user information. So, Facebook is supposedly in compliance even if they aren’t. Because it’s so easy to say you’re 13 when you’re not, right?
Given this reality, it would seem to make sense for Facebook to set up a legitimate process for parents to sign kids up for the site with extra restrictions and privacy safeguards for youngsters. Then, I suppose the challenge would be in keeping the older folks who lie about their age for nefarious purposes out of the kids’ area.
Consumer Reports says that 5 million of the 12.5 million underage Facebook users are actually less than 10 years old. Clearly, kids are becoming both computer and social-media savvy at younger and younger ages.
And there should be restrictions put on them, not just by parents, but by the companies that oversee the sites.
Here are some of my suggestions for Facebook and other social-media sites:
1. Require proper spelling and punctuation. Any use of “r” as “are” or “u” as “you” should be flagged and deleted. This is not the 16th century — multiple spelling variations of words are no longer the norm. I mean, how are our kids ever going to learn how to play Scrabble?
2. The same goes for multiple exclamation points. And LOLspeak and emoticons. If we’re concerned about our kids’ educations, we should make them write in complete sentences and learn to express their feelings using actual descriptive words, right?
3. On a more serious note, figure out a way that kids can’t put their addresses, phone numbers and location information online.
4. Make it easy for parents to monitor what their kids are doing on FB. Perhaps when parents sign kids up, the company asks parents to auto-friend their kid with several responsible adults, such as themselves, the kids’ grandparents, and their fun Uncle, who may not actually be a responsible adult but who has been in trouble enough to recognize warning signs.
So, Facebook, you have your work cut out for you if you truly want to take on letting all those underage children come to Jesus and tell the truth about their ages.
But remember, childhood is not a democracy.