I was on CBC yesterday discussing the ethics of allowing young children to participate or star in reality television programming, and one of the things I’d considered raising as a point is that we’ve generally agreed that 13 is the age at which it makes sense to allow children sign up for social media networks and start crafting their public personas. And then I got into the office to discover that Facebook is contemplating ways to get children younger than 13 on the site through accounts linked to their parents’ profiles.
I can see a model of this that would work to protect children’s privacy if Facebook could meet a couple of conditions. First, I think they’d need a fine-grained opt-in system that parents would have to complete in full before activating a child’s account. The problem with most parental controls is that you can access the service without enforcing the controls. TVs and computers come equipped with V chips, but you don’t have to either opt out of using yours or turn it on and set it in order to use the internet or cable, and I’d imagine a lot of people who intend to use them never get around to it. Facebook’s access for children under 13 might only continue giving them access to applications, rather than giving them the option to build profiles and start broadcasting information about themselves. But in either case, Facebook should build in as much parental involvement as possible.
I also wonder if this move could spark a conversation about a two-tiered social environment. I’d imagine at least some parents would recoil from the idea of letting Facebook and other sites collect user information about their children. If Facebook wants to get them in as customers, they might have to reach a compromise where parents pay for their children to access apps as an alternative to monetizing children’s use by collecting data on it. I don’t know exactly what the model might look like, but I can see a social web that works that way and not just for children, with ad experiences getting increasingly customized for non-paying users.