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Facebook: Are The Kids Alright?

Facebook's History: From Dorm To IPO
Facebook's History: From Dorm To IPO

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Facebook is investigating ways in which it can more safely welcome children under the age of 13 onto its site. For organizations using Facebook for marketing, customer service, and other business applications, this could mean a huge increase in audience and potential for engagement. It would also mean new security and privacy concerns with extremely high stakes.

"Wait a minute," you may be saying. "I already have a [insert age less than 13 here]-year-old child on Facebook." That may very well be, according to a 2011 survey by Consumer Reports that found that of the minors who actively use Facebook, more than one-third were younger than 13.

Facebook's current terms of service state that users must be 13 or older to register for the site, but there is not much stopping the younger set from doing so--they just need to lie about their age. Many do this unbeknownst to their guardians, but studies have shown that it's not uncommon for parents to help onboard their tweens.

Many people have expressed concern over putting such powerful technology tools into the hands of children who may not be ready to use them. However, experts say, the fact that they are indeed using them is reason enough to sanction Facebook for users younger than 13 and to implement appropriate controls and education so that the platform can be used safely--or, at least more safely.

[ Learn how one child-friendly brand approaches social. See Chuck E. Cheese's Charts Careful Social Expansion. ]

"This is a new generation--social media is natural to children and they will use it whether we know it or not," said Frederik Hermann, VP of marketing at Talenthouse, an online community that brings together brands and creative on social channels. "Businesses need to be sure proper safeguards are in place to protect them from legal issues and protect children from specific content. It is up to us adults to educate them, build ethical policies, and institute proper technological protection for them to be able to enjoy and thrive in this environment."

Facebook is reportedly working on technology that would make it safer for children to participate on the social media platform, including features that would tie parents' accounts to those of their children and provide a high level of control.

Indeed, Facebook has a lot of work ahead of it if it hopes to provide a safe environment for young children to participate in, but there will be a new responsibilities on--and expectations for--organizations that target children on Facebook or whose content would appeal to children (whether we want it to or not).

"If Facebook does create an under-13 platform, and it is found to be compliant against the FTC [Children's Online Privacy Protection Act] and CARU [Children's Advertising Review Unit] guidelines, you're already protected to the extent that Facebook is protected," said Gabe Karp, executive VP and general counsel at ePrize. "If you have an app or promotion that lives within the platform, Facebook is the party collecting a child's information. However, as a marketer, you shouldn't automatically assume that they will go out of the gate with a 100% compliant platform. It's a dicey undertaking to get around all the concerns associated with child privacy."

Among other things, companies may need to consider the use of new firewall and verification technologies to ensure that content inappropriate for young children would be segregated. They may also need to develop language on their Facebook pages that makes the nature of their content clear.

As we increasingly turn to social media as a sort of portal for all manner of content, and as schools begin to embrace the use of social networking for communications and curriculum, it is better to be safe than sorry.

"We must acknowledge that these technologies have become part of modern life, and teach our kids how to maneuver and use the Internet--what to do and what not to do," Hermann said. "I have as many conversations with my son on how to use social media, the Internet, and computers--where to be careful and how to use them--as I have with him about chores at home or brushing teeth."

What's your take on "Facebook for kids"? Please comment below.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller at @debdonston.

New apps promise to inject social features across entire workflows, raising new problems for IT. In the new, all-digital Social Networking issue of InformationWeek, find out how companies are making social networking part of the way their employees work. Also in this issue: How to better manage your video data. (Free with registration.)