Preteen uses of Facebook worry parents

CorrespondentMarch 7, 2011 

  • Facebook officials say they are "actively considering" whether to again allow third-party applications to request mobile phone numbers and home addresses from users younger than 18.

    The ability of applications to request that information from users of the social networking site has been controversial since Facebook first allowed it briefly in January. The feature was disabled for all users a few days later, after criticism from some users and privacy experts.

    Facebook has said some users might want to share their cell phone number to get text message alerts on special deals, or allow an Internet shopping site to have a home address to speed the checkout process.

    In a letter to lawmakers, Facebook officials said they were working to "re-enable" the feature, but with changes. The feature could still be disabled for minors. In addition, the permission screen could be revised to let users see more clearly what information they are making available when they approve requests for personal information from third parties.

    "We have not yet decided when or in what manner we will redeploy the permission for mobile numbers and addresses," Marne Levine, Facebook's vice president for global public policy, wrote to Reps. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, who are key congressional players on privacy issues. Early last month, they wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing their concerns. Los Angeles Times

Facebook is going to the children - and that's a concern for some parents.

The social networking site was originally created for college students - many of whom were aghast when their parents discovered the site. Now those parents have their own worries: Their youngest children are accessing the site.

Facebook's policy states that no child younger than 13 can register for the site. But it's a rule easily broken.

"My daughter has friends in the fourth and fifth grades that already have Facebook pages," said Deborah Ballard of Durham. "Their parents know they are on the site, but these kids must have altered the age box and lied in order to gain access to the network.

"I've told my children that it's a much better idea to actively engage with friends in real life instead of just virtually," Ballard said. "Facebook can also expose children to things they just aren't ready for."

Facebook officials say they don't want underage users and that those who falsify their personal information are in direct violation of the Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

Facebook has organized a community verification system to help identify applicants who are providing false information so they can delete their pages.

How well that works isn't clear.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center showed that 46 percent of online 12-year-olds use social networking sites, while 62 percent of online 13-year-olds use them.

It's a trend that upsets parents and educators who worry that the cattiness involved with social networking can lead to the manipulation of vulnerable children.

Nicky Jackson Colaco, a member of the Facebook Public Policy and Online Safety team, said there is no "perfect" solution when it comes to age verification on Facebook or anywhere else on the Web, but that parent participation is key.

He encourages parents to talk with their children about safe Internet practices.

"We believe that conversations about online safety should occur in the same way that parents discuss why wearing a seatbelt is important or why looking both ways before a child crosses the road is critical," Colaco said.

It's also up to parents to make sure their preteen children aren't accessing the site.

But it can be hard to monitor every Internet-connected gadget a child can use. It's also hard to say no when older siblings use the site. And, of course, Facebook has other lures.

Meredith Powell, a 16-year-old from Morehead City, said she babysits for a 7-year-old boy who has a Facebook account so he can play the game Farmville. His parents are fully aware, she said.

Powell joined the network at the minimum age of 13 but now thinks that might have been too young.

"I think kids should just wait until high school before they access Facebook," Powell said. "I get friend requests from random people, and if I were younger, I might accept them without knowing the dangers."

But Sam Oddo, 13, of Charlotte dismisses such fears. He joined Facebook when he was 12. He said his mother reminds him to be careful while using the site, but she doesn't monitor his usage.

"I'm friends with my mom on Facebook, but I altered her privacy settings," Oddo said. "I think it's stupid that people find Facebook dangerous because you can just modify your page features."

But adults do have one way to keep underage usage of the site down. It's a technique Ballard uses on "friend" requests.

"If you're under the age of 13, I won't be accepting."

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