It’s difficult enough to limit children’s exposure to the ills of the internet, but what if they were allowed on Facebook? It’s the question being asked by cyber safety experts and parents after details were released of a patent lodged by the social media giant.
The patent application, lodged in 2012 but made public last week, signals Facebook has been looking at technology that would allow children under the age of thirteen to create Facebook accounts.
According to the patent, children would have to first get approval through a parent’s Facebook account, and Facebook would then analyse the parent’s online behaviour to verify their identity. Parents would be able to set privacy controls and monitor and limit content seen by their child.
Kids under thirteen are banned from Facebook, though the company acknowledges many sign up anyway. According to The Times, in 2011 it was estimated that seven-and-a-half-million children under thirteen were using the site, including more than five million under the age of ten. In another study, fifty-five per cent of US parents of twelve-year-olds said their child was on Facebook, and three-quarters of those parents had helped the child gain access.
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has made clear his interest in allowing children to use the site, saying in 2011 that “my philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age”.
But Australian cyber safety expert and author Susan McLean says despite the patent, Facebook has no intention of opening up access to children any time soon. “Their current position is, ‘At the moment we don’t want (children) here and if we see them, we will delete them’,” she said after speaking to Facebook following the release of patent details this week.
Ms McLean, of Cyber Safety Solutions, warns against allowing children to use social media. “I don’t think children have the cognitive ability to manage social media. If they could, primary schools wouldn’t be tearing their hair out with the problems it causes.”
Her concerns around children using Facebook are echoed by Julia Horowitz, of US privacy rights group Electronic Privacy Information Center, who tells Politico: “It seems like it’s hard enough for parents to tell kids, ‘Don’t tell strangers what your name is’. Then you put them in front of a computer, and ask them to make decisions about what information to share. That’s an adult level of discretion that’s unreasonable to ask of children.”
A Facebook spokesman tells Politico the company listened to expert and parental concerns around child safety when developing the patent. If Facebook does pursue kids’ accounts, they may still be some way off – the company will need to comply with US children’s online privacy protection laws and develop a suitable method of proving a parent’s identity before it can open access to children under thirteen.
In the meantime, Ms McLean says adults should file a report to Facebook if they know any children using the site. “At they moment children are not allowed to be there so they shouldn’t be there. If you are concerned you can report anonymously,” she says.