Facebook and the under-13s.
Small children are a big headache for the social network.
ONE American in three aged 65 or older uses social networks, says a new report by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank. But it is the small surfers, not the silver ones, who are currently making waves. Facebook is examining ways to allow children under the age of 13 to use its service, with some form of parental supervision. If this happens-and Facebook stresses that it has not yet decided whether to go ahead-it would be a venture into uncharted territory.
Critics howl that young children lack the maturity to cope with social networks. They also worry that Facebook will find devious ways to make money from naive children or, more likely, their parents. "We would be giving the keys to the chicken coop to the fox," says Doug Fodeman of ChildrenOnline.org, a pressure group.
There is also the thorny question of how Facebook could comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in America, which was designed to protect children under 13 as they use the internet. The law stipulates that online services with youngsters among their customers must obtain the consent of the children's parents before collecting data from them. Parents also need to be able to review their children's data and have these deleted if they so wish. The onerous nature of these and other COPPA provisions explains why social networks have tended to shun the young. Facebook insists that you have to be 13 to use its service.
The snag is that children fib about their age. A study by Consumer Reports found that 5.6m children under 13 were using Facebook in America alone. Another survey of American parents found that adults often knew that their children were less than 13 when they joined Facebook. In many cases, the parents helped them to set up their accounts.
Regulators have noticed. Facebook's current musings may reflect the fear that the firm will run into trouble if it does nothing. It already has slightly more robust privacy settings for children between the ages of 13 and 17. But it would need a far tighter regime for younger children, says Sarah Downey of Abine, an online consumer-privacy company.
In spite of its plummeting share price, Facebook has oodles of cash from its recent stockmarket flotation. So it could easily hire the extra staff needed to support parents and their youngsters, as well as to ensure compliance with COPPA. Mark Zuckerberg, the social network's boss, has said he believes children's education should start early. Now he has a chance to prove that he means it.