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Adding a Shallow End to the Social Network Swimming Pool

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal pulled the ostrich’s head out of the sand. They reported that Facebook is considering whether and how to accommodate users under the age of 13. It’s generating a flurry of coverage, but is anyone truly surprised?

Several independent surveys have concluded that not only are children under the age of 13 using Facebook, but that their parents are helping them do it — by lying about their date of birth when setting-up an account.

Of course this isn’t unique to Facebook. How many pre-teens have faked their age to get a gmail account, or to view movie and video game trailers? Kids are always going places where they’re not allowed and in all honestly, we’ve been here before…

  • With music: “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content;”
  • With paid cable: “This show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing;”
  • And with free broadcast television: “This program contains strong language.”

But we can do better than that when it comes to kids accessing online social media. That’s because social networks can deliver value to pre-teens while also controlling elements of the experience that require parental supervision.

There’s a reason that swimming pools have a shallow end. So if social network operators are actively considering how to tailor their platforms so that kids have access to a more protected and controlled online environment, then they should be commended.

There’s a reason that swimming pools have a shallow end.

And it’s more than just complying with federal child privacy laws by getting parental permission to open an account. That’s useful but not sufficient for keeping kids safe in social networks, where parents also need a way to approve and manage things like choosing friends, uploading content, tagging photos, and posting comments to their peers.

Presumably, pre-teens whose parents “helped” them get a Facebook or gmail account are monitoring those things today. But the online industry needs to acknowledge reality and create better tools to help parents manage their kids’ online social experience. Monday’s WSJ report sounds like a step in that direction.

Some elected officials think that children should be entirely barred from social networks, but they’re living in the past. Online communities will continue to grow as resources in the classroom, tools for civic engagement, and for interacting with family and friends.

Finding appropriate and graduated ways to introduce pre-teens to social communities is the best way we can help them become responsible Netizens. But fighting to keep kids off the Net is no better than burying your head in the sand.

–Steve DelBianco