Family advocates worry as Facebook looks to allow access for children

Consumer advocacy groups and lawmakers expressed concern on Monday about Facebook's plans to open up its social networking site to children younger than 13.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the social media giant is testing features that would allow young children to access the site. The children's accounts may be linked to their parents, so that the parents can control whom their children friend and which applications they use.


Expanding Facebook's user base could open up a new revenue source after a disappointing initial public offering, but the company would have to navigate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law that restricts the ability of websites to collect information from children younger than 13.

James Steyer, the CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, accused Facebook of putting profits above the interests of children.

“With the growing concerns and pressure around Facebook’s business model, the company appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders. But here's the most important issue: there is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13," Steyer said. "Indeed, there are very legitimate concerns about privacy as well as the impact on the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children."

Steyer accused Facebook of trying to "hook" unsuspecting children on its social media service.

"What Facebook is proposing is similar to the strategies used by Big Tobacco in appealing to young people – try to hook kids early, build your brand, and you have a customer for life," Steyer said. "What's next? Facebook for toddlers?" 

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), who chairs a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over online privacy issues, urged Facebook to move carefully.

"In developing this new technology, Facebook needs to proceed with an abundance of caution. Very strict privacy protocols must be in place before younger children are allowed on social networking sites," Bono Mack said in a statement.

A Facebook spokesman noted it is difficult for sites to enforce age restrictions and said the company is in "continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."

Consumer Reports found last year that there are about 7.5 million children younger than 13 on Facebook.

Ioana Rusu, regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, applauded Facebook for trying to address the problem of children lying to get on the site, but she said Facebook needs to ensure that its site is safe for children.

"Facebook has to provide parents with effective tools to monitor and supervise their pre-teens' activities. Plus, it shouldn't collect information about these children for ads and marketing," she said. "If Facebook is serious about making the site a safer place for kids, it has to deliver stronger controls and education aimed at parents, and they shouldn’t target kids with ads."

Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute and an outside adviser to Facebook on children's safety issues, noted that children on Facebook often have the support of their parents.

"They see the 13 year-old [limit] as a recommendation like a PG-13 label," he said. "And [the parents] make a decision: 'ok no I do want my child on Facebook, and I want them to be able to communicate with me, and with grandma and with Uncle Tom who is in Afghanistan.'"

Balkam applauded Facebook not trying to keep "their heads in the sand" about children using the website.

But he argued the site should include tough parental controls for children and should block marketing entirely to young children.

He noted that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently reviewing COPPA and said Facebook should wait until the agency's review is complete to implement new features for young children.

An FTC spokeswoman said she expects the review to be finished in the "next several months."

Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said a separate system for children is an "inevitable decision" for Facebook.

But he noted that if Facebook blocks ads to children, it could lead to the ironic situation of adults pretending to be younger to avoid advertising, which would cut into the company's revenue.