Over the weekend Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made comments suggesting he wants to get younger kids using the social networking site. Zuckerberg framed Facebook as a tool to help educate children about using the internet before suggesting that COPPA, a federal law designed to protect the online privacy of children under the age of 13, is standing in the way of that goal.
The quote has drawn a fair bit of criticism online, including some from us. Much of the criticism is based on the fact that Facebook stands to profit a great deal by collecting the personal details of kids under 13. But what do the experts think? Can Facebook be a useful tool for educating kids online or not?
Experts Aren't So Sure
Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, author of Cybersafe and founder of Pediatrics Now an online resource for parents to quickly and easily learn new information about pediatrics, says that Zuckerberg is right to think that educating young kids about the Internet is imporant. "It's an interesting discussion because digital citizenship is the focus of the online world right now." Dr. O'Keeffe and other experts all agreed that as using the Web becomes increasingly important in our lives, teaching children how to be online responsibly at a young age can give them a real leg up.
However, Dr. O'Keeffe also suggested that Facebook may not be in any position to provide that education in its current form. "The lessons of digital citizenship have to start young, but I don't feel that Facebook is the venue to have those lessons occur. A lot of missteps happen on that site without a lot of coaching."
Other experts agree that Facebook, at least in its current form, isn't the best place for kids to learn about communicating online. Amanda Lenhart with the Internet and American Life Project of the Pew Research Center says it can be hard for young kids to get the hang of social networks. "What's really a challenge is that in a lot of these mediated spaces it can be very, very hard to remember who your audience is," Lenhart said. Lenhart suggested that that kind of confusion can lead to cyber-bullying or worse.
The experts were also skeptical that COPPA was standing in the way of Facebook. COPPA doesn't forbid kids from using any social networking sites but instead tries to provide protection from unscrupulous advertisers trying to use their personal data. Dr. O' Keeffe says that function is important. targeted ads on Facebook, along with some of the more dangerous social interactions the site makes possible, can expose kids to a lot of questionable content if there aren't some restrictions in place.
Denise Terry, chief "Safety Mom" at parental control site Safety Web agrees. "The whole point of COPPA is to protect kids and their privacy and kids have a right to protection. There are things that Facebook can do to comply with COPPA." The simplest way that Facebook could become COPPA compliant would be simply adding some kind of parental approval form for young children.
While Mrs. Lenhart said that the Pew Research Center didn't take a specific stand on policy issues like COPPA she also said that kid's online lives need some formal protection as they learn how to communicate online. "There are certain things we need to learn how to do but we have a licensing process for, like cars. You have to be a certain age and a certain level of maturity before we go out and let you operate that machinery."
Useful Alternatives for Kids
It's likely however that kids will use social networks one way or another. Recent studies have suggested that 5 million kids under the age of 10 may already be using Facebook. "There's a reason there are already kids under that age on the site" according to Mrs. Lenhart. Facebook "connect[s] kids to friends and family members they don't get to see."
There are alternatives to Facebook for young children. Dr. O'Keeffe suggests the site Togetherville. Togetherville is a social network created specifically for children. Parents use their own Facebook accounts to help kids sign up for Togetherville and then parents and children can use the site together to introduce children to social networking in a safer environment.
There's also the possibility that Facebook itself could create tools that would make it more kid-friendly. Denise Terry says she thinks the site could be a great way to teach kids how to use the Internet if Facebook added some robust parental controls along with the previously mentioned parental approval during sign-up.
At the moment though even for parents looking to educate their kids about the web it's a hard line to find the best way to let children learn about using the Internet without compromising the children's privacy.