Facebook’s Push for Child Users a Data Jackpot? Not So Fast

Photograph by Martin Barraud

Facebook wants young children to use its service. Will they be a jackpot - or a data dud?

Now that Facebook is exploring ways to allow children under 13 to officially use its service, the company faces two critical questions if it moves ahead with any plans.

The first one is the most delicate: How does Facebook plan to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the 1998 law that sets rules on websites that collect data on children?

The law would require that Facebook, which has 7.5 million users who are already under 13, according to a 2011 survey by Consumer Reports, set up a way to confirm that parents have given their children approval to join the site.

This is not an easy task. Many sites accomplish it by requiring that a parent provide a working credit card, even for free services like Facebook’s, or call in to a dedicated phone bank and talk with a representative of the site, according to Emma Llanso, policy counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, who studies minors’ use of the Internet.

Facebook would also need to give parents the ability to block tracking of their children, an ability that Facebook’s adult users don’t have. For a company built on advertising, this could be a crucial component. Llanso said some sites have opted not to have child-specific services because of the strict requirements.

“Facebook has a lot of things it would have to get right for this type of service to succeed, in terms of what information they’re collecting and how they are notifying parents about it,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of moving pieces here.”

If Facebook is clear with parents about who has access to children’s data and how it will be used, the service “could be a positive thing,” she said. But any ambiguity, privacy foul-ups or unexpected tracking or marketing could cause a backlash, adding to the company’s woes at a time it hardly needs more drama. Facebook’s stock fell to a record low today.

The second question surrounding Facebook’s push for younger users is how much data the new recruits would share anyway.

Young people, in their online personas, can be surprisingly stingy in what information about themselves they share.

A 2007 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project of kids 12 to 17 years old found that most who have online social networking profiles restrict them in some way.

Two-thirds of them said their profiles were only visible to select users, and many kids whose profiles were exposed to the wide-open Internet said they posted some false information on the pages, often to protect themselves from strangers. Pew found that kids with public profiles rarely posted sensitive information such as their last names or phone numbers.

And a paper last year by Microsoft researchers Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick provided evidence to counter what they said is the “widespread myth that American teenagers don’t care about privacy.”

Participation in sites like Facebook and Twitter “does not imply that today’s teens have rejected privacy as a value. All teens have a sense of privacy, although their definitions of privacy vary widely,” the paper said. The researchers also noted that while many young people are compelled to use privacy settings to keep predators — or “creepers” — out of their accounts, they don’t always understand there’s an invisible third party in the room collecting data: the social network itself.

Young people also develop creative ways to keep outsiders at bay. Boyd and Marwick interviewed one young woman who created an “invisibility cloak” by deactivating her Facebook account every night when she was done using it. That meant her friends could only send messages when she was online, usually at night, and her profile would be effectively off-limits for adults that might be searching it during the day. Other young people “encode” their public messages so only their close friends can understand, which would be of limited value to advertisers.

Still, getting people on the service at a younger age holds obvious appeal as a target for advertisers. At the same time, those who get an early start on the social networks have more time to figure out how to manage their privacy in public spaces, Boyd and Marwick wrote.

“They may not always be successful, and they may consistently face violations of their privacy, but they are not discarding privacy as a result,” the paper said.


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