As we mentioned in this Monday Morning JETLawg, last week at an education summit, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggested that children under the age of thirteen should be allowed on social networking sites like Facebook.  Zuckerberg explained that Facebook would take precautions to protect children, and their access to social media could actually be a positive and educational influence.

As it currently stands, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents online sites that take personal information from allowing children under thirteen to sign on. Facebook’s terms technically comply with the Act. Still, one study has found that 7.5 million Facebook users are actually twelve or under. In fact, this study suggests that 5 million are actually ten or under.

Zuckerberg, only 27 himself, corrected his initial suggestion at an e-G8 forum today.  He assured that no plans were in the works to try to get around COPPA. Still, he acknowledged that enforcing the age requirement (and otherwise protecting children) is not a top priority:  ”That’s just not top of the list of things for us to figure out right now,” he announced.

Even if Facebook remains (at least technically) off-limits to children under thirteen, these kids’ presence on the site poses a number of other legal concerns.  Personal and family privacy issues, 1st Amendment rights, and a multitude of cyber-crimes (like identity theft,  child pornography, and harrassment) all seem more complicated and sensitive when younger children are involved.  On the other hand, one research project indicates that, although the media has emphasized the danger of social networking sites to children, “youth are not at particular risk” when interacting on social networking sites like Facebook.

Regardless of Zuckerberg’s current stance, as more and more children join Facebook at younger and younger ages, both Facebook and the legal system will have to consider whether it should better enforce the current restrictions. If, on the other hand, Facebook  in fact begins “friending” these kids, it will likely face pressure to at least build in better protections.

–Andrea Verney

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