Underage and on Facebook

Facebook is mulling over letting children below the age of 13 join its network, but with so many signed up already, what difference would it make?

Facebook's minimum age should be 21. This argument mooted by CNN blogger John D. Sutter will no doubt get the support of many parents who worry about safety and privacy issues on the social media network. That is, those parents who have not secretly signed up, or helped to sign up, their children on Facebook.

Facebook (FB) already has an age limit 13 years old but the reality is that many "underaged" children already have their own profiles on the site, parents' consent notwithstanding.

In fact, it is estimated that some 7.5 million children below the age of 13 are currently on FB, out of its total 900 million plus users worldwide.

This shows that the minimum age requirement on FB is just a number. Facebook does little, if anything, to enforce it, and one can simply lie about their birth date to circumvent the rule.

So why the charade?

As suggested by the Wall Street Journal, which first broke the news of the social media giant's plans to open up to tweens and even younger kids, Facebook was feeling the heat from the American authorities in relation to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

The Act stipulates that online services catering to children below 13 would need to obtain the consent of their parents before collecting data from them. COPPA also requires that parents be given the ability to review, revise and delete their children's data.

Hence, with the number of pre-teen children registering on the site growing by day, Facebook knows it can no longer turn a blind eye to its minefield. Coming clean is perhaps its only option in defending itself from any potential legal action.

As it acknowledged in a statement: "Enforcing age restriction on the Internet is a difficult issue, especially when many reports have shown that parents want their children to access online content and services."

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself had earlier said he would like to see kids under 13 use FB "more honestly and in compliance with the law".

"My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age... Because of the restrictions, we haven't even begun this learning process... If they're lifted then we'd start to learn what works. We'd take a lot of precautions to make sure that they (younger kids) are safe...," he was quoted.

The conspiracy theorists of course say freeing the shackles is one way for Facebook to recoup its losses after a disappointing debut at the share market. Widening its user base will certainly broaden its revenue-raising opportunities, especially in the mobile apps and ad sector, and add to its market value.

Then there is the brand loyalty factor getting them young is the best way to get users hooked for the future, and guard against any possible defection to "cooler" social media networks to come.

Whatever the motive, the reality remains stark there is a high number of active FB tweens and they can no longer be ignored.

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