You may or may not realise that Facebook has an age limit - membership of this ubiquitous social
network Website is officially restricted to those aged over 13. The chances are that you didn’t know
that. But I was rather shocked to discover that only 22% of parents with children aged 8-11 years
old actually knew that children under the age of 13 were not legitimately eligible to join Facebook.
Fifty-four per cent of such parents were aware there was an age limit, but they didn’t know what it
was. The remaining 24% of parents with young children aged 8-11 didn’t realise that there was any
age limit at all. The data for this, and the charts on the PowerPoint slide I’ve compiled, come from
a recently published Ofcom report. Ofcom is the government organisation that monitors and
regulates nearly every form of media within the UK, including TV, Radio, the Internet, and Mobile
telephones. From time to time, in the course of that monitoring, they publish market research
reports. It is a useful source of unbiased information because Ofcom’s remit requires that they
have some real understanding of what is happening in media-land today. This is contrary to much
of the publicly available market research that is used as a vehicle to promote the interests of the
company funding the research.
Now that the expensive hype surrounding Facebook’s public offering has subsided, the share price
has tanked. And the general public are becoming aware that Facebook’s user numbers were
considerably inflated. In October this year Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, claimed there are
one billion users globally but a little investigation, unsurprising to old Internet hands, revealed that
some people maintain multiple Facebook accounts concealed under false identities by just deleting
their cookies. And, horror of horrors, some accounts are not even human. But, far more seriously,
Facebook has been found to be very lax in maintaining their 13 year old minimum age limit for
children. It has been, and still is, of course, very much in Facebook’s interest to keep their
membership numbers as high as possible. But did you know that, as a concerned parent, you
cannot even apply to have your child removed from Facebook and there is very little monitoring of
the age limit? In fact Mark Zuckerberg would like to remove the age limit restriction entirely but his
hands are tied by U.S. regulators although he vows that one day Facebook will fight this limitation.
It may be sooner than later: in May this year, the weekly newspaper, The Sunday Times, quoted
Facebook's head of policy in the UK, Simon Milner, as saying that the social network was getting
ready to change its policy with regard to allowing younger users join the site. And “Facebook Inc. is
developing technology that would allow children younger than 13 years old to use the social-
networking site under parental supervision”, said the Wall Street Journal (June 4
would…help the company tap a new pool of users for revenue but also inflame privacy concerns.
Mechanisms being tested include connecting children's accounts to their parents' and controls that
would allow parents to decide whom their kids can "friend" and what applications they can use...”
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that any Website that collects
information about children must maintain a rigid 13 years and above age restriction. Should we be
bothered if this isn’t adhered to? Zuckerberg’s line is that Facebook educates children. Last year,
he told Fortune: "My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young
age." But what does he mean by education?
Your answer will probably depend on three factors a) whether you are a parent or not, b) how
positive your life experiences have been to-date, and c) how seriously you take the role of being a
parent. For several years I’ve been watching the novelty of Facebook gradually decline and now, if
the academic study in the following link is to be believed, using Facebook comes just above being
sick in young people’s worse ranked activities. Nevertheless, children always want to behave as far
more grown up than they actually are. In the UK, 12% of all 9 year old children have a Facebook
profile. Twenty-one per cent of all 10 year old children have one, and by the time children have
reached the age of 11 nearly 50% of them have a Facebook account. One year on, at the grand age
of 12, the proportion of UK Facebook members rises to 64%.
These numbers are significant. According to the the 2011 Census there are over nine million
children aged under 13 years in the UK. It would be hard to accurately quantify the numbers of
underage children using Facebook in the rest of the world but you can see that the figures must run
into tens of millions. For example early in 2011 researchers at LSE published EU Kids Online, a
study (PDF) of 25,000 children across Europe. They found that 38 per cent of children aged 9 to 12
used social-networking sites, with over one in five using Facebook. One quarter of these European
Facebook users aged 9 -12 communicated online with individuals who have no connection to their
offline lives. Worryingly, a quarter of these children have their profile set to ‘public’ and, even more
frightening, a fifth of those display their address and/or phone number. So the features designed
to protect children from other users are not easily understood by many younger children.
In America the trend for children under thirteen to be using social network sites is well established.
The US computer security company, McAfee, conducted a study in 2010 which found that 37% of 10
to 12-year-olds had active profiles on Facebook. In May 2011, the US magazine, Consumer Reports,
said that: "of the 20 million minors who actively use Facebook", 7.5 million were younger than 13
and more than five million were younger than 10 years old. Again in the US a recent study by
researchers from Microsoft Research and the universities of California, Harvard and Northwestern,
found that 72% of parents who reported that their child had a Facebook profile knew that that the
child had joined before reaching the age of 13. Where the US leads, the UK often follows.
However ignorant many parents may be about the reasons why U.S. regulators set an age limit on
websites like Facebook, some do like to keep a watchful eye on their children. As the third chart on
the slide shows, in the UK until children are around 11 years old the majority of them have a parent
in the same room as they access the Internet. But by the time the child reaches the age of 12, a big
switch has happened - only a minority of children have a parent in the same room as they access
the Internet. Ironically this is a crucially important period for children. It is when they are at their
most vulnerable from the risks of the bullying and threats of other children. Sadly, but realistically,
it is also the age when these youngsters are susceptible to the sophisticated sexual predators that
inhabit Facebook. Like any software tool, Facebook can be used in a multitude of ways. Just as in
the reality of the physical world, the virtual world of Facebook is so densely populated that it
mirrors the good and bad that dwells within all societies. Yet Facebook, by being so familiar, by
being virtual, and by usually being accessed from the reassuring safety of home, lulls many parents
and their children into a false sense of security. Now Facebook can be accessed on smartphones,
(600 million people access the website on their mobiles), children will be even more unprotected.
Let us be realistic: The basic reason that Mark Zuckerberg wants as many children as possible to
become habitual Facebook users is so that he can harvest, and then sell, their profiles to
advertising agents and their clients - Global clients like Coca-Cola, who spent $2.9 billion and
McDonalds’, who spent $2.3 billion on advertising in 2010. Companies like these are very shrewd.
They deliberately target children because they know that adult taste preferences are established
early in life. They are prepared to pay huge advertising premiums to be able to easily reach
millions of children in order to entice them into a lifetime habit of desiring sugared drinks and fast
food and advertising to children is much more effective than advertising to adults. Zuckerberg
desperately needs high advertising revenues to drive up Facebook’s share price because the
majority of shareholders have seen their shares lose half their value since they bought them. So,
don’t be surprised if your child develops a health-threatening propensity for cola drinks, fries and
burgers, and starts piling on the pounds. But, compared to the other dangers to which innocent
young Web surfers can easily be exposed, a few extra pounds in weight pales into insignificance.
You have been warned.
...with analysis & insight...