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Many parents help kids lie to get on Facebook

In 1998, Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that requires Web sites to "obtain verifiable parental consent" before collecting personal information from children under 13.

This very well-intentioned law--enacted long before the advent of MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks--was designed to protect children from revealing information that could be used by companies to sell them products or by others to exploit them. Children under 13, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces COPPA, are "particularly vulnerable to overreaching by marketers."

COPPA doesn't prevent companies like Facebook from admitting kids under 13, but it does present substantial and expensive roadblocks.

Companies with services aimed at younger kids, such as Disney's Club Penguin, have gone to considerable expense to comply with the law. But most companies, including Facebook, MySpace, and Google+, simply block pre-teens from the service. These rules are specified in the companies' terms of service, and companies generally require members to state their birth date. Any child whose date of birth indicates he or she is under 13 is blocked.

Other than requiring a birth date, very few services use any other type of age verification tools which, according to the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (which I was on), are largely impractical and can have unintended security and privacy consequences such as the risk of leaking the names and ages of children.

Millions of underage Facebook users
The FTC is currently reviewing COPPA and there is a lot debate, including from some who think it should be liberalized and others who want its protections extended to all teens under 18. But one thing is for sure: millions of children are lying about their age to get around COPPA-related rules. In 2010, I reported on a study commissioned by McAfee that found that 37 percent of 10-to-12-year olds are on Facebook. And this past May, Consumer Reports reported that "of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million were younger than 13" and more than 5 million were younger than 10.

It's not just happening in the United States. Even though COPPA is a U.S. law, most companies apply the restrictions globally. The EU Kids Online study from the London School of Economics found that, across Europe, 31 percent of 10-year-olds, 44 percent of 11-year-olds, and 55 percent of 12-year-olds said they used a social network site. Australia's Daily Telegraph quotes Facebook adviser and former FTC commissioner, Mozelle Thompson, that "Facebook removes 20,000 people a day, people who are underage."

Parents OK with kids lying to create account
As it turns out, most parents of kids who are lying about their age are aware of what their kids are doing and many parents are actually helping their kids lie to get on Facebook. A peer-reviewed study released today--"Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the 'Children's Online Privacy Protection Act'"--(available from FirstMonday.org) found that "many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age--in fact, often help them to do so--in order to gain access to age-restricted sites in violation of those sites' terms of service."

The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive but the study was designed, supervised, and analyzed by its authors: Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and NYU, Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University, Jason Schultz from University of California, Berkeley, and John Palfrey from Harvard University. The study polled 1,007 U.S. parents who live with children between the ages of 10 and 14.

Nearby a fifth (19 percent) of the parents of 10-year-olds acknowledged that their child was on Facebook. About a third (32 percent) of parents of 11-year-olds knew their kid was on it. And the same was true for more than half (55 percent) of parents of 12-year-olds. Each of these kids had to lie to get an account.

For kids who were under 13 at the time they signed up, 68 percent of the parents "indicated that they helped their child create the account." Among 10-year-olds on Facebook, a whopping 95 percent of parents were aware their kids were using the service and 78 percent helped create the account.

You can read more about this issue on CNET.

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