Do you remember the first thought that popped into your head when your pre-teen cousin sent you a friend request on Facebook? If you don't I'll attempt to jog your memory. It probably went something like this:
"What the hell? Aren't you like 9 years old?"
And yes, they probably are. Although Facebook has opened their walls quite a bit since the golden age where a University email address was your only ticket inside, there still are some restrictions - one in particular that your precocious little cousin violated.
In Facebook's Terms of Service, statement 4.5 clearly reads: You will not use Facebook if you are under 13. That's pretty straight forward, I mean, it's hard to lawyer your way out of that one. But like most age verification systems on the internet, there is no age verification system. Facebook takes your word for it in the same way that YouPorn makes sure you are 18 before you enter.
Let's be fair to Facebook. Apparently, they are trying to keep users honest by removing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 underage accounts every single day. Still, recent reports have suggested that nearly half of all 12-year-olds in the U.S. are doing some sort of social networking, and that 38% of all kids on Facebook (under 18) are actually under 13.
There are a couple of facts that make the problem of underage Facebook users unlikely to go away anytime soon. First, everyone's on Facebook. That means you need to be on Facebook. I can remember middle school as a fairly tech-savvy 11-12-year-old. We would have loved to have Facebook. And by god, if one in my group of friends was on it, we all would have had to be on it. That's kind of how I imagine social dynamics at that age - it can't imagine much has changed in a decade and a half.
Second, kids will be kids. They're going to lie. Couple that with the fact that short of a birth certificate and three-day waiting period, Facebook can't monitor the creation of "unauthorized" accounts in real-time - and you see why Facebook is full of the very young.
But according to UK MP Tim Loughton, kids being kids isn't the whole story. He says parents are actively helping their sub-13-year-old kids create and maintain Facebook accounts.
Loughton, who serves as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, says that children are jumping on the social media train way too early.
"We know, and I know from personal experience, the temptations for younger children to set up a Facebook site and get involved with those social media," he said. "And I also know that in too many cases they do that aided and abetted by parents. So it's not just a question of giving information to parents, it's making sure parents are acting responsibly on behalf of their children too."
It's easy to look at the trend of parents helping their kids violate Facebook rules and claim terrible parenting. We've seen the bullying, sexual predation, and adult content that kids can be exposed to on the site. How could a mother want to give their pre-teen daughter access to that? On the other hand, the argument could be made that these parents are placing protections by shepherding their kids through a process that is bound to happen anyway. "Nerfing the inevitable," if you will.
Although Facebook clearly bars those under the age of 13 from participation, they do have some specific safeguards for their users in the 13-17 age range.
We maintain added protections and security settings for teens (age 13-17) that ensure their timelines and posts don’t show up in public search results. Similarly, if teens share their location through Places, only their Facebook friends can see it.
Contrary to popular belief, with the proper tweaking of privacy settings, you can maintain a fairly private public persona on Facebook. But it's understandable why a majority of people agree that there should be some age requirements to joining the social network. The news is rife with parental horror stories involving kids and Facebook. Sexual exploitation is a big concern, and we've seen multiple stories of predators using the social channel to seek out victims.
For instance, in February, a Pennsylvania man was charged with 68 felony counts after using Facebook to orchestrate an unbelievably elaborate scheme to manipulate underage girls. The man primed the girls for months, first creating a series of fake accounts claiming to be Flordia surfers. He used those accounts to create a large network of friends, and create personal relationships with the girls. He used that trust to strike inappropriate conversations and extract sexually explicit photos.
But it didn't stop there. Once he established his friend network, he "killed" one of his alter-egos. The girls flocked to the second alter-ego, a so-called friend of the now-deceased. Preying on their emotions, he convinced a couple of the girls to meet up with him for the purpose of sex.
Sometimes, teens on Facebook don't even have to be active in the illicit activity to be caught up in it. Earlier this year, a porn site was caught using teens' Facebook photos without their knowledge. The photos were non-nude (Facebook doesn't allow nudity), but were suggestive in nature.
Teens (and younger kids) are no doubt more susceptible to emotional distress caused by Facebook. A recent study suggested that Facebook is fueling the fire when it comes to body image issues and eating disorders. In a question directed at users of all ages, 51 percent said that seeing photos of themselves make them more conscious about their body and weight. You can only imagine the stress this could cause to young kids whose bodies are changing and are just starting to deal with new social pressures.
Clearly, there is a huge minefield that teens and parents must navigate online. But how young it too young? Is a 12-year-old any more likely to get tangled in some lascivious web than a 13-year-old?
A recent survey suggests that most people agree with the 13-years-old requirement - or even wish that it were higher. A survey from SodaHead found that only 14% of people think that kids younger than 13 should be allowed on Facebook. A majority of respondents aged 18+ thought the age requirement should be higher.
So MP Loughton's claims might not signal an epidemic of parents facilitating their 12-year-old's Facebook activity, but it does raise some questions. What is the proper course of action here? Do you think that there is anything wrong with parents walking their young kids through life on Facebook? Is there any situation where you would allow your pre-teen on the site? Or do you think that kids under 13 are too young, in all instances, for the largest social network in the world? Let us know what you think in the comments.