Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities section 4, article 5 clearly states that "You will not use Facebook if you are under 13." But according to sources quoted by the Wall Street Journal, that may soon be changing.
Apparently, Facebook is in the process of developing new technology that would make way for kids under the age of thirteen to become members of the network. Of course, that technology would be focused on the safety and privacy of the children and would most likely link their accounts to their parents' accounts. According to the sources, the "under-13" feature would allow parents to control who their child becomes friends with, and well as what apps and game purchases they utilize.
Of course, even if Facebook implements a new feature like this, it's not like it will mark the first wave of sub-13-year-olds participating in the social network. Despite the clear ban of youngsters in Facebook's Terms of Service, kids under the age of 13 have been using the service for quite some time. Some recent studies say that up to 38% of the kids on Facebook are under the official age requirement. Other reports have put the hard number at 7.5 million under-13 kids on the site.
How do these children do it? Well, they lie, and it's that simple. Facebook's age verification systems simply takes you on your word - as does every online age verification system. It's not like beer websites and YouPorn are running background checks on browsers. The kids are getting in, but Facebook reportedly works pretty hard to remove underage accounts - 20,000 a day according to one report.
The underage account problem is an old and persistent one for Facebook, as it's nearly impossible to truly enforce their policy. With a move like this, Facebook would be taking the "it's going to happen anyway" approach, enlisting parents to guide their children through what, by now, seems like an inevitable process.
According to one UK Member of Parliament, it's already happening. Tim Loughton made news back in April when he said that there was a rising trend of parents helping their underage kids navigate the Facebook minefield. He took a decidedly negative position on the practice, but I (and others, obviously) asked whether or not parents should shepherd their kids through the inevitable? There are 900+ million people on Facebook, and think about what a 12-year-old is - a middle schooler in many cases. Yeah, it's safe to say that they are going to find their way on Facebook - with or without parental guidance.
So, why fight it, some would argue.
Then again, even with the watchful eye of parents, Facebook can be a rough landscape for young kids. Bullying, sexual predation, adult content - it's all out there and can easily reach kids. Cyberbullying is hard enough to deal with if you're 13 or even 16, but much worse if you're 8 or 9. It's a tricky debate, no doubt.
We've reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this accordingly.
UPDATE: We've heard back from a Facebook spokesman:
Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.