BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported Facebook’s plans to open up the social network to children under 13. As of now, preteens are not permitted to use the site, mainly because Facebook would have difficulty complying with COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the federal law regulating how companies can collect and use information about kids. Reportedly, Facebook is investigating several mechanisms for getting around COPPA restrictions, but in that quest they are one step behind millions of parents.
Last fall, we spoke to media researcher Danah Boyd about the ultimate circumvention, parents just plain lying. I asked her back in November when we first aired this interview, to explain the origins of COPPA, and here’s what she had to say.
DANAH BOYD: The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act was created in 1998 to protect young people's privacy, both with targeted marketing and also with physical safety, so the law was extremely well intended. But a decade later things have changed radically, and the social media sites that we see and the communication platforms, part of participation involves sharing content.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so the terms of service for Facebook, for example, or Gmail say you have to be 13 because they don't want to be involved in the morass of qualifying underage users. And that's where it ends, right? Parents say, “Oops, sorry, [LAUGHS] no, you're too young. You can’t be on Facebook.”
DANAH BOYD: No. Unfortunately, one of the things that we learned in this study was that parents, not only do they know that their under-13 children are on these sites, but they’re also helping them create their accounts. And they’re doing so en masse.
What was most surprising to me was the fact that almost three-quarters of parents, regardless of whether their kid was on Facebook or not, thought that it was perfectly acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions.
I think that one of the things that we’re seeing from this data is that parents are interpreting these age restrictions as a general recommendation.
They're saying, “Hey okay, this is probably only appropriate for kids 13 or above but my child, you know, is perfectly mature” or “My child is in an environment where I can support him or her and make certain she understands, you know, how to interact in these spaces.” And they don't want the government, they don't want companies to step in and tell them how to be a parent.
In fact, one of the things that was very clear in our data, 93 percent of parents said that they should have the final say about what happens with their kids online.
BOB GARFIELD: But I’ll bet you if you said to the parents who had lied to get the kids online, “How would you feel if the web site were tracking your child's traffic all across the Internet,” they would say, “Oh, it would be horrible. No, no, don't let him do that.”
DANAH BOYD: Not only did we ask them if they're concerned about targeted marketing, we asked them how frequently they thought their kids were on the receiving end of targeted marketing. And, while parents were actually quite concerned, a huge number of them reported that their kids were not being [LAUGHS] exposed to targeted marketing, which is most likely to be completely inaccurate. By and large, participation in online environments means that you are actually on the receiving end of targeted marketing.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's say my 10-year-old says to me, “Daddy, I – I want to be on Facebook” and I, for whatever reason, say, “Sure,” and she says, “Well, you know, I, I - it says you have to be 13.” And I say, “Oh, we’ll fix that,” how do I fix that? What do I have to do to violate these terms of service?
DANAH BOYD: To get past Facebook's process, you actually have to make her birth date so that she is now currently over the age of 13. And you may have to actually erase the cache, open it up in a new browser, because Facebook does try to make it difficult for you to just keep changing your age in order to get access.
Over half of parents of 12-year-olds report that their kid has a Facebook account. This is, by no means, something that just a few people are doing. And, you know, not only that, 76% of those actually assisted in creating those accounts.
BOB GARFIELD: So, in addition to whatever my child may be exposed to in terms of data tracking or content, we are also having this nice parent-child exercise in learning how to, you know, lie.
DANAH BOYD: One of the things about these violations is that they've completely normalized lying. Lying has become status quo. It's not just happening in the home. I was, you know, aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location.
One of the funny things you will find on these sites is that a huge number of kids actually say that they're from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be from.
So based on the stats of Facebook and, and MySpace, there are more people online in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe than there are living there.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Danah, thank you very much.
DANAH BOYD: Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Danah Boyd is a media researcher and co-author of the study, “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.”
Reporting from Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, I’m Bob Garfield.