Should We Fear Children Accessing Facebook?

By Jason Schultz, DMLcentral


In recent months, there has been an intense media and policy vortex surrounding the questions of when and how children – especially those under 13 – should gain access to popular online sites like Facebook. The outcome of these cultural and political conversations will have a profound effect on key components of connected learning from values such as full participation and social connection to activities that are peer-supported, interest-powered, and openly networked.

The focus on age as a metric for assessing the appropriateness of children’s online interactions primarily comes from several historical sources, including alcohol and drinking laws, movie and videogame rating systems, and most specifically the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA requires all commercial website operators in the United States to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children under 13. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission has been reviewing the effectiveness of COPPA, and Congress has been holding hearings and introducing bills such as “The Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011” – all with the intention to raise the level of scrutiny concerning companies that collect information about children.

For years, Facebook and many other popular online sites have responded to this scrutiny with an outright ban on accounts for children under 13. However, as numerous studies have shown, millions of under-13s are ignoring or circumventing these prohibitions and hopping the fence to join the party, often with the help of parents and friends. Recently, Facebook announced that it would explore options for offering under-13s access, perhaps in light of this trend. This triggered several concerned responses, including a congressional letter of inquiry.

So how should proponents of online learning engage these questions? We know from a robust body of existing research that efforts to eliminate choice and exploration in youth activity have the unfortunate side-effect of limiting opportunity and learning or forcing young people to engage in activities “under the radar” of adult oversight. We also know that policies that limit access to knowledge and relationships disproportionately impact children and youth who are dependent on public access infrastructures through schools, libraries, and other community institutions. If young people are not supported in accessing learning-relevant content and relationships online, they are limited in their ability to pursue knowledge and interests.