Recently, I became the proud father of a 13 year old daughter. I can’t say it was unexpected (I had a good handle on the notion for about 13 years), it still comes as a shock. The day was greeted, of course, from a letter from the Disney Corporation.

Dear Parent or Guardian of xxxxxxx,

You may recall that your child is registered with the Walt Disney Internet Group (“WDIG”) family of sites including Disney.comABCNEWS.com, ABC.com, ESPN.com, FamilyFun.com and many more.

I actually hadn’t recalled that but I believe there had been a Club Penguin in our past. It went on:

Based on the date of birth your child provided us during registration, our records indicate that your child has turned 13.  As a result, your teen may now participate in additional features of WDIG sites including Public Forums.

Basically, we had reached a legal milestone. Disney etc were now allowed to store information about our child including whatever she might post to public forums. Of course, Disney did give me a chance to impose parental controls to limit this activity. Nonetheless, there was a sense that a new era was amongst us.

So, what’s going on here? Well, as articulately explained by my former Microsoft Research colleague, danah boyd, this was all a result of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (or COPPA) that prevents websites from collecting data without parental permission. This Act was, of course, designed to apparently protect parents and their children. The Act has just turned 13. But in administering the Act many websites have decided to prevent children under 13 from joining altogether. That’s not true for all. For instance, Disney clearly tried to walk the legal minefield. But when it comes to Facebook, Twitter and any number of social networks, children are talk to move on.

Now, like many parents, I was already quite familiar with COPPA. While it is a US-only Act, Facebook have implemented it world-wide. Now while I have looked, it is unclear if Australia has an equivalent of that Act (I’m sure someone with a legal background can enlighten me). In any case, if I, as a parent, permitted my daughter to sign up to Facebook while in Australia, it required that I lie about her age.

And there are actually many reasons why I would want to allow her to do that. First and foremost, this is the opportunity for me to monitor her interactions on Facebook — requiring she be a friend at least for a few years. That allows me some access and the ability to educate. Second, all of her friends were on Facebook. This is where tween interactions occur. Finally, I actually think that it is the evolving means of communication between people. To cut off a child from that seems like cutting them off from the future. Some people lament that they don’t want their child on Facebook for exactly that reason; if they join they’ll miss out on the technology-free social interactions of their youth. I, of course, don’t agree with that. I suspect that my own children, when facing this dilemma for their kids, will lament some new technology because they will not be able to experience the wonders of Facebook! But that’s me. Other parents may have different views. In any case, officially, Facebook side steps the issue by officially barring those under 13 from joining.

Apparently, there are millions of under 13 year olds on Facebook anyway. This prompted, boyd and her co-authors to study parental choices in a recent paper published in First Monday. It makes for very interesting reading.

From a national sample of 1,007 U.S. parents who have children living with them between the ages of 10-14 conducted July 5-14, 2011, we found:

  • Although Facebook’s minimum age is 13, parents of 13- and 14-year-olds report that, on average, their child joined Facebook at age 12.
  • Half (55%) of parents of 12-year-olds report their child has a Facebook account, and most (82%) of these parents knew when their child signed up. Most (76%) also assisted their 12-year old in creating the account.
  • A third (36%) of all parents surveyed reported that their child joined Facebook before the age of 13, and two-thirds of them (68%) helped their child create the account.
  • Half (53%) of parents surveyed think Facebook has a minimum age and a third (35%) of these parents think that this is a recommendation and not a requirement.
  • Most (78%) parents think it is acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions on online services.
The status quo is not working if large numbers of parents are helping their children lie to get access to online services. Parents do appear to be having conversations with their children, as COPPA intended. Yet, what does it mean if they’re doing so in order to violate the restrictions that COPPA engendered?

So, in other words, parents are side stepping Facebook’s rules. And they do so knowingly. Well, of course, they do. You have to pick a new age for your child to do it.

By the way, parents might be concerned about picking an older age for their kids. After all, when they get older, they will be presenting themselves as older still on Facebook. It turns out that Facebook allows you to change your birth date once every so often but it does review the process. That is, Facebook have data on how many underage kids were on Facebook because those kids change their birth dates to reflect their true 13 year old age when that occurs. Notice how murky the shroud of ignorance will become if someone in the US challenges Facebook’s enforcement of the current law.

The broader point is that the Act is forcing apparently law abiding people into (mild) fraud. And it is doing that in front of their kids. The messages there are just terrible. But the main cost is opportunity for parental guidance in education:

COPPA is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with unintended consequences for parents, educators, and the public writ large. It has stifled innovation for sites focused on children and its implementations have made parenting more challenging. Our data clearly show that parents are concerned about privacy and online safety. Many want the government to help, but they don’t want solutions that unintentionally restrict their children’s access. Instead, they want guidance and recommendations to help them make informed decisions. Parents often want their children to learn how to be responsible digital citizens. Allowing them access is often the first step.

Finally, let me remark on the facts that there are negatives of having your child on Facebook. You’d like to monitor but my observations of teenage conversation is that there is so much I just don’t want to know. I had always figured my daughter would unfriend me first but there are days I wonder if it won’t be the other way around. Moreover, now I have to think twice about what videos I share on Facebook. Fortunately, I have no concerns about them reading this blog so I can feel quite freely happy to guide you to this amusing but profane video about Siri.

11 Responses to The Facebook Parents’ Dilemma: COPPA and my daughter turn 13

  1. Richard scott says:

    Hi Joshua,

    My wife and I are halfway through Parentonomics, parenting 6 kids (hers 4 x 10-14 hrs, mine 17 & 20) – and I’m halfway through my M Econ on top of an MBA. So I’ve got lots to learn from you, but perhaps a few words of wisdom on the parenting front.

    Don’t discount compelling the kids to keep their Facebook passwords registered with you, so you have the Armageddon option of logging on as them… It can be much more effective than just being a “friend”. We’ve found that there’s also a lot of utility in relying on our friends to keep tabs on Facebook. Kids seem happy to shut parents out, but never think that our adult friends will happily keep us up to date.

    And you’re possibly right about who might blink first. Seeing too much of my daughter’s antics away at Uni is challenging. There but for the grace of technology go I, I suppose. A photographic record of first year wouldn’t have been pretty!

  2. […] The Facebook Parents’ Dilemma: COPPA and my daughter turn 13 […]

  3. […] that a particular video (say, this amusing one about Siri) is not something I want to share with my 13 year old daughter, I can restrict it to certain […]

  4. […] particular video (say, this amusing one about Siri) is not something I want to share with my 13 year old daughter, I can restrict it to certain […]

  5. […] that a particular video (say, this amusing one about Siri) is not something I want to share with my 13 year old daughter, I can restrict it to certain […]

  6. […] have written before that there is a good reason for the decision as to whether a child joins a social network to lie […]

  7. elizabeth says:

    i want to know how to delete my 13yr olds account. i deactivated it but she reactivated it. she has been on runaway for 3 days now and i want to block her access to other people who are giving her assistance. the police have been of no use

  8. Dmitriy Darsalavidze says:

    Fuck kids. They must not use computers at all. They need to fucking be outside and play with toys.

  9. Good article. Only (nitpicky) thing I take exception to is the statement that COPPA is “forcing . . . people into . . . fraud.” People choose. This act no more “forces” people to lie about their age than does the law against consuming alcoholic beverages before age 21, or than any other law or act “forces” people to become fraudulent or criminal.

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