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Is Zuckerberg Waiting Post-Facebook IPO to Open Up to 13-Year Olds?

Should Facebook Be Open to Children Under the Age of 13?

Speaking during the NewSchools Venture Fund's Summit in California earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Mark_zuckerberg_100610-05 suggested that Facebook should be open to children under the age of 13 because it can be used as an excellent education tool. When asked if he had any plans in place for starting a new education service on the platform and how it would work, Zuckerberg said that because of the age restrictions, they had not yet started thinking about it. "Because of the restrictions we haven't even begun this learning process. If they're lifted then we'd start to learn what works. We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that they are safe." 

One of the main reasons Facebook restricts use to people 13 and older is because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a 1998 law that requires Web sites to get parental permission before it can make any use of data provided by children younger than 13. Facebook could create a service that is COPPA compliant, but it would be expensive and likely require not only changes to the terms of service but modifications to its privacy and advertising policies for pre-teen users. Facebook currently has somewhat different privacy policies in place for users between 13 and 18, but no programs for users younger than 13. Zuckerberg seems determined to change this. He is quoted in a Fortune CNN-Money online story by writer Michal Lev-Ramas as saying "That will be a fight we take on at some point." A cynic might say that Zuckerberg is waiting until after Facebook's IPO before fighting that fight.

Facebook's chief technology officer, Bret Taylor, was grilled by senators last Thursday on the adequacy of the social network's policy barring users under 13 years old after a recent report found that millions of children had Facebook accounts. "I want you to defend your company here because I don't know how you can," Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) told Taylor during a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing on mobile privacy. "That's actually news to me," Taylor said. "We don't allow people to have accounts under the age of 13." Rockefeller responded by questioning the veracity of Taylor's statement saying: "You can't just dismiss that seven-and-a-half million users are younger than 13 and say you have a policy that doesn't allow that to happen."

Though Facebook's terms of service prohibit children from using their site, the West Virginia Democrat questioned its efforts to verify users' ages, citing a recent Consumer Reports study that estimated 7.5 million children had profiles on the social network. The survey, included in the just-released June report, also found that those kids’ Facebook accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents, exposing the children to malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies. The report found that at least 7.5 million children—more than one-third of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year—were under 13 and violated the site’s terms, which prohibit kids that young from joining.

Consumers Union said Facebook's default privacy setting for minors should be to share information with "friends only" instead of "friends of friends" -- a category that publicizes the average users information to 16,900 people. The group also called for Facebook to create an "eraser button" that would allow users to delete all potentially embarrassing information posted about them on the site when they were minors to help ensure that adult Facebook users will not be perpetually haunted by pictures and posts on the site added while they were too young to understand the consequences of their actions.

Of course, the same concerns exist about adults who post inappropriate pictures. So, perhaps the $64,000 question should be: When is a person old enough to understand the consequences of his or her actions before doing something foolish? Those of us who are older and wiser, and who have made our share of mistakes, know that actions can be regretted at a later time, after the deed is done. The consequences can be severe such as sending a naked picture of yourself to your boyfriend and discovering it went viral shortly after your break-up.

The problem with underage access to Facebook Image1 is a universal problem we face today as a society. Temptations to act in an immature, foolish manner are everywhere. Commercials appeal to the lowest form of human behavior starting with male stupidity (any beer commercial) and sexualizing females in demeaning advertisements often with submissive poses (e.g., Victoria's secret ads). The movies are "dumbed-down."  Witness the original Dumb and Dumber in 1994; the 2003 sequel, Dumb and Dumber: When Harry Met Lloyd; and, if you can believe it, those pesky Farrelly brothers are thinking about a third movie bringing back the original cast members. Entertainment reporter Kate Ward calls it: Dumb & Dumber: Man-Boys of a Certain Age?   

The inescapable conclusion is we no longer regulate our own behavior and no longer act in accordance with moral values. It's an anything goes mentality today. Values are relative to each person rather than emanate from some deep spiritual belief that there is a difference between right and wrong. Our so-called leaders act in their own self-interests and corporate tycoons make Gordon Gekko seem altruistic. It's no longer necessary to proclaim greed is good. No need. It's now embedded in our DNA.

  Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, May 31, 2011