If Facebook wants to open its doors to kids under 13 -- as well as acknowledge the millions that are already there -- it's going to need to tread cautiously.
The social network is testing technologies that would link children's pages to those of their parents and enable parents to approve friend requests and access to applications, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
These mechanisms wouldn't be introducing young children to Facebook for the first time, but rather would give them a way to be there officially. According to a 2011 Consumer Reports survey, some 7.5 million children under 13 had already hacked into Facebook by entering a false birth date, and 5 million of those were under age 10. Whether these pages could show ads and whether data-collection practices would include a "wipe-out" mechanism that would essentially expunge young users' records on their 13th birthday to give them a fresh start are open questions that child advocates are looking for answers to.
While the fact that young children are using Facebook is about as secret as the gambling at Rick's in "Casablanca," the notion of shepherding more kids onto the platform is bound to be controversial for reasons ranging from cyber-bullying to the unseemliness of potentially feeding their data into the engine that drives Facebook's advertising business.
The report has already triggered a reaction from regulatory powers, with U.S. Reps Ed Markey and Joe Barton, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, writing to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, "While Facebook provides important communication and entertainment opportunities, we strongly believe that children and their personal information should not be viewed as a source of revenue."
There's evidence to suggest that millions of parents would welcome the opportunity to give their children access to Facebook, with a Microsoft Research-backed study showing that 36 % of parents surveyed had knowledge of their children joining Facebook before they turned 13.
But even though millions of children are already illicitly using the platform, Facebook could be more exposed legally if it opts to bring them out into the open, since the current setup allows for the company to maintain that the site is not designed for children under 13, according to Linda Goldstein, chair of the advertising, marketing and media division at law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
"I think they're going to be buying a lot of additional regulatory headaches," Ms. Goldstein said. "The value of the data and the ability to eventually capture this data at such an early age is interesting, but they're going to have to weigh that against consumer perceptions."
In order to move forward with any plan to open up the platform to children under 13, Facebook will need to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which states that sites collecting data from children under 13 must obtain parental consent. Ms. Goldstein anticipates that Facebook would need to require a credit card number or some other unique identifier from parents to satisfy the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces COPPA. But she noted that Facebook could also be exposed through the blurring of advertising and entertainment that occurs in social games that kids might be eager to play.
Big -brand product placements within games are now commonplace -- McDonald's and Stonyfield Farms have both had integrations within Zynga's FarmVille, for example -- but giving children access to such advertiser-sponsored content could invite the FTC's scrutiny.
"I would expect that Facebook would endeavor to go above and beyond the requirements of COPPA and the regulators would likely expect them to do the same," Ms. Goldstein said.
If ads are allowed on the platform developed for young children, it's likely that marketers would take public relations into account before choosing to buy ads there. A Coca-Cola spokeswoman told Ad Age that the company doesn't market to kids under 12 and therefore wouldn't consider buying Facebook ads to target young children. (However, 12-year-olds would have official access to Facebook if it develops a platform for the under-13 crowd.)
Facebook had no comment on its testing of these features but said in a statement: "Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."
The company already has modified pages for minors between the ages of 13 and 17 that include safeguards such as not allowing them to post publicly and only enabling friends and friends of friends to tag them in photos.