Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities require users of the social network to be at least 13 years old (and even older, in some jurisdictions). 7.5 million of the 20 million minors on Facebook in the past year were younger than 13. To make matters even more worrying, more than 5 million were 10-years-old or younger, according to projections based on its yearly State of the Net survey conducted by Consumer Reports.
The American magazine covered 2,089 online households to find that the minors' accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents, exposing them to malware or more serious threats such as bullies and predators. Using Facebook exposes children and their friends and family to safety, security, and privacy risks. For example, 1 million children were harassed, threatened or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying, according to the survey.
The report also revealed that 21 percent of Facebook users with children at home have posted those children's names and photos on the site, 15 percent of Facebook users have posted their current location or travel plans, and 34 percent have shared their full birth date. Consumer Reports explained that all of these subject users to identity theft and stalking.
I found the last statistic, however, most frustrating. One in five Facebook users apparently had not used the site's privacy controls at all.
Consumer Reports offered four suggestions for "Being Social but Safe:"
- Monitor a child's account. Parents should join their children's circle of friends on Facebook. If that's not feasible with an older teenager, keep tabs on them through their friends or siblings, as did 18 percent of parents surveyed who had 13- to 17-year olds on Facebook. Parents should delete a pre-teen's account or ask Facebook to do so by using its "report an underage child" form.
- Utilize privacy controls. Roughly one in five active adult Facebook users said they hadn't utilized Facebook's privacy controls, making them more vulnerable to threats. Facebook's privacy controls may not prevent every breach but they help. Users should set everything they can to be accessible only to those on their friends list. Enabling a public search allows users' profile picture, friends list, activities and more to be visible online outside of Facebook.
- Turn off Instant Personalization. Facebook has been adding sites to its Instant Personalization feature, which automatically links accounts to user-review sites such as TripAdvisor (travel) and Yelp (local businesses). Users who don't wish to share what cities they have visited with their Facebook friends via TripAdvisor should disable Instant Personalization, which is turned on by default.
"Despite Facebook's age requirements, many kids are using the site who shouldn't be," Jeff Fox, Technology Editor for Consumer Reports, said in a statement. "What's even more troubling was the finding from our survey that indicated that a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children's use of the site."
Two months ago, Facebook announced new safety resources and tools for reporting issues, in conjunction with a White House summit for preventing bullying. Last month, the company rolled them out:
- More Resources for Families: the Family Safety Center has been redesigned. There are now more resources, including useful articles for parents and teens and videos on safety and privacy. In the coming weeks, Facebook will also be providing a free guide for teachers, written by safety experts Linda Fogg Phillips, B.J. Fogg and Derek Baird.
- Social Reporting Tools: the new social reporting tool (Photo Gallery) allows people to notify a member of their community, in addition to Facebook, when they see something they don't like. By encouraging people to seek help from friends, Facebook hopes that many online issues which are a reflection of what is happening offline can be resolved face to face. This tool launched last month, but Facebook has now expanded it to other parts of the site, including Profiles, Pages, and Groups.
In regards to today's news from Consumer Reports, Facebook had little new to add. "Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don’t circumvent a system or lie about their age," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "We appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area."