We’ve discussed the issue of children under 13 years of age signing up for Facebook in a previous post. This article explores the pressure on those children to lie about their age in the first place.

It’s probably worth pointing out that until they register, many children are actually unaware of the age requirement for signing up to Facebook. The pertinent sections of the site’s policy are the following:

  • “you will not use Facebook if you are under 13”
  • “you will not provide any false personal information”

Which has not deterred 6 million preteens in the United States alone to flout the rules, according to Consumer Reports (who also add that Facebook is looking for positive solutions to the issue). Currently, however, Facebook’s elbow room is limited by U.S. federal law, namely the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which “prohibits organizations from gathering personal information from people under the age of 13 without a guardian’s permission” (from the linked CBC article). And signing up against these rules can have grave consequences: a decision made before a child is even an adolescent can result in a lifetime ban from Facebook. In today’s world that can amount to social exile or ostracization.

To further complicate matters, it’s often the parents who are signing up their children, for similar reasons: fear they will be isolated from their peers. And ironically, although cyber bullying is, by definition, carried out online, some children have been targeted by bullies due to their absence from Facebook! It appears to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for these kids who are already vulnerable to peer pressure.

Some parents who sign up their underage kids justify it by noting they now have the passwords and can therefore more effectively monitor their children’s activity on the social network.

But beware. This is an anecdotal story and related anonymously, but one 12 year old boy’s experience was an upsetting one. Again, from the CBC article, the anonymous mother relates:

“A boy in my son’s class opened a Facebook account in my son’s name. Then the boy invited all of my son’s friends to join him. But the friends started seeing pornographic images and scantily dressed girls and they started asking my son what’s going on. That’s when we realized what had happened. The classmate had stolen my son’s identity, lied about his age and created a pornographic site.”

While it’s important to remember that most kids have a positive or at least neutral experience on Facebook, these outliers do need to be noted.

The dilemma for most families is choosing between not wishing to encourage your children to lie versus the genuine benefits to the child and to the wider family itself of being connected. Until Facebook fine tunes its response to this issue by coming up with ways to open its site to underage children while protecting them from predators and bullies, this is a drama that will be played out in many homes this coming school year.