Q&A: Is Facebook's 'under-13' policy viable?

Michael Freidson, with Metro International -- the world's largest newspaper -- about online privacy, social media and Facebook 'the under-13' rule.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

A fortnight ago, I spoke with Michael Freidson with Metro International, a newspaper distributed in over a dozen countries, about the reaction to Mark Zuckerberg's intended new policy to allow users under the age of 13 on Facebook.

Currently, 13 year old's and over are allowed to create accounts and profiles. But it does not mean that the small window of those still of a child's age should be treated as adults on a vastly adult-oriented and focused site.

Though 'the Zuckerberg plan' faltered before it could viably come to fruition, Facebook still has to contend with hundreds and thousands of under-13's on the site each day.

The 'under-13' policy may one day still be possible. This interview explores some of the fundamental issues with online safety, the legalities and the importance of education in online spaces and social networks.

You can read the shortened interview on Metro's pages here.


MF: You wrote that you're against children on Facebook. Why is it so different from MySpace or Friendster or even an instant messenger, where kids can befriend random screennames?

ZW: As Facebook draws in over 500 million users worldwide, it is natural for the site to attract the most attention. While others sites should not bask in the heat Facebook constantly feels with pressure from privacy advocacy groups, there is no difference between a seemingly random screenname on MSN/Windows Live and using a fake name on Facebook. Identity goes far further than simply the name we use or details we hand over.

MF: As a criminologist, who do you feel is the most effective way to stop predators?

ZW: This insidious relationship we have with online predatory behaviour is ubiquitous across sites involving children. Online sex offenders should be restricted from using social networks, but this simply prevents online reoffending.

The balance should be maintained between children's access to offenders as well as offenders' access to children. A bipartite arrangement should be enforced, with children of a certain age -- say 13 and upwards, as Facebook has as its current policy -- allowed on social networking sites, but with a restricted panel of privacy settings to prevent automatic disclosure of a child's information.

MF: How do we institute laws without violating privacy?

ZW: It is an immensely difficult balance to strike. Unfortunately, it is only for criminologists and sociologists to debate, and for respective parliaments, assemblies, congresses and legislators alike to implement. Privacy should be the foremost point for the minds of those constructing laws.

If freedom of expression and speech can align with privacy -- something the United States holds better than its British cousins -- then we are at least one step in the right direction.

MF: Should there be stricter guidelines for opening up a social media account?

ZW: Yes and no. Yes, in that it would prevent spam accounts from being created -- formed from fake names which water down the concentrated social experience for the rest of the users.

However, equally no, in that the less information there is about users online, the less chance that social media companies can misuse private user information, as Facebook has shown to do before.

MF: What should I tell my kid? They do not fully understanding the issue and warning them just doesn't work.

ZW: Education in online spaces is absolutely crucial for younger people. Take into account cause and effect: if a child goes online, they should be aware of the vast array of consequences resulting from their actions.

Parents should take an active approach in educating their kids online, but a massive disparity exists because many children are more in-tune with the online world than their parents. Schools should also take an active role in online education.

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