Facebook mulls under-13 access

2012-06-04 19:33
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touts the social network's IPO, General Motors announced that it was pulling Facebook advertising. (Paul Sakuma, AP)

As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touts the social network's IPO, General Motors announced that it was pulling Facebook advertising. (Paul Sakuma, AP)

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Washington - Facebook is experimenting with methods of opening up the social networking site to children younger than 13, the current cut-off age for joining the website, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

Such a move would be controversial, as many parents of older children already worry about the possibility for social and criminal problems on Facebook. There are also questions of whether children under 13 are equipped to know which data is advisable for sharing online.

However, the tests - none of which have been made publicly available - might be necessary for Facebook, the Wall Street Journal reported, as so many children already log on to the website by lying about their age, putting Facebook in potential legal jeopardy due to US laws that require companies to verify parental confirmation before collecting data from children.

The plans focus on ways to incorporate parental permission into any logon by a minor, from linking a child's account to that of a parent or by allowing parents control over what features children use while on Facebook.

The newspaper noted that opening up Facebook to younger children would significantly boost its potential number of users, key to Facebook's revenue stream.

No concrete plans

"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," Facebook stated to the Wall Street Journal in response to questions.

"We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."

No other comments were available on the company's website.

The newspaper noted that Facebook routinely tests technology that is never put into use. It reported no concrete plans to release the technology.

Facebook is in the crosshairs of multiple critics. Privacy concerns have prompted it to submit itself to regular audits by US officials. There are also concerns about the company's profitability, after a recent initial public offering saw the share price rapidly fall.

The company derives significant revenue from hosting online gaming sites, like Zynga. Such games would likely appeal to many children, meaning allowing them to access Facebook could clear up worries about its business model.

But others worried about the direct effect of a site like Facebook on young children, especially when there have already been reports of cyber bullying incidents among older children already allowed to use Facebook.

Allowed

Other incidents with older children have centred on party invitations accidentally circulating wildly, resulting in hundreds of strangers showing up at parties at private homes.

"We don't have the proper science and social research to evaluate the potential pros and cons that social media platforms are doing to teenagers," said James Styer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a child-advocacy group based in San Francisco.

"The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling."

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has said publicly in the past that he thinks children under 13 should be allowed to use Facebook.

"That will be a fight we take on at some point," Facebook quoted him as saying, citing older news reports.

- SAPA

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