When Facebook surfaced in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg's idea of a social network wasn't new necessarily -- Tom Anderson's MySpace was dominant at the time -- but it was significantly cooler than everything else out there. Everyone used their real names on Facebook -- as opposed to MySpace, which leaned on the idea of "screennames" -- but what made it truly cool was its exclusivity: Originally, you needed a prestigious "harvard.edu" e-mail address to register; later, all you needed was a friend already on Facebook to invite you to the party. Now, anyone can register for Facebook, invite-free.
Facebook has been gradually opening itself up to more users after conquering Harvard, spreading first to other colleges, then high schools, and finally college grads. But now, Facebook is reportedly ready to invite the last remaining demographic to join its 900-million-plus user base. The crew in Menlo Park, Calif., is currently exploring ways to open Facebook access to children aged 13 and under.
"Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services," Facebook said in a statement released to Mashable. "We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."
The new option for children and preteens, according to the Wall Street Journal, would link their accounts to those belonging to their parents, which would allow adults to control their kids' actions on the platform, including whom they can add as friends, and which applications they can access and use. There may also be a new feature that lets Facebook charge parents for games and entertainment applications that kids want to play or access.
But the fact is, many users under 13 years old are already on Facebook. In fact, studies show that more than 38 percent of Facebook members under 18 are actually 12 or younger. But formally opening the doors to children would substantially increase its registered user base, bringing Facebook closer to copying McDonald's "Over 1 billion served" slogan.
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, says that while many children are already on the social network, a "chaperoned" version of Facebook would make childrens' activities substantially safer online.
"If a parent lets their child on at age 12, at least the parent is the gatekeeper," Leibowitz said.
Yet, even though a watered-down version of Facebook would be safer for children, should they be there at all? Let's break down the pros and cons to inviting young children into Facebook.
- The more, the merrier. Just because they're children doesn't mean what they have to say is meaningless. It's always a good idea to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and while Facebook originally made its name off its in-groupness, it must now open itself up if it hopes to maintain its dominance in the social media sphere. More users means there will be more interactions, more conversations, and a bigger network to leverage for business or casual purposes.
- Facebook needs youth. Like the Evil Queen in "Snow White," Facebook needs regular injections of youth to stay alive. Children are generally more creative than adults, and it could be fun to see more drawings, projects or links from kids go viral via Facebook's News Feed. The youth will also help offset the feeling that Facebook is dominated by brands and businesses looking to make a dollar; by adding numbers on the other end of the age spectrum, users can remember that Facebook is for people of all ages to connect.
- Kids aren't cool. I hate to say it, having once been a snot-nosed brat myself, but kids just aren't cool. I'm speaking for all adults here when I say we take what kids say and do with a grain of salt. It might be cute or funny, but it's usually not that important. It's not their fault; they're just not ready from a development standpoint to engage in real conversations just yet. Many users could perceive their posts as annoying, which could really detract from the overall enthusiasm for Facebook. The company would need to be very careful in managing how many posts are seen by young children, and how many posts from young children we can see.
- Privacy matters. There's a reason why childrens' names aren't printed in the news: Kids need to be protected. They are in no position to defend themselves. They don't know who or what is out there on the Internet waiting for them, and unfortunately, there are a lot of sick people in the world who like kids at an inappropriate level. Facebook would need to create a way to limit who can see and find these children online, because privacy of these accounts in particular is of the utmost importance; in addition, users don't want their R-rated or angry posts to be read by young children, either. Facebook could run into a lot of legal trouble down the line if it can't protect its youngest members.
- Emotions and bullying. Kids make fun of each other. There's no way around it: They tease each other about their hair, their appearances, and things they do on a regular basis. As a result, feelings are hurt, and bullying continues its vicious cycle. While Facebook has added new rules and tools to track and prevent bullying on its site, opening Facebook to kids would be disastrous from a bullying standpoint. Children would not stop bullying one another, but Facebook can't penalize them because they really don't know any better. But overreacting on Facebook -- which is already commonplace among teens and adults -- would be extremely irritating if children start to do it after a bad day, or a "mean" post. The last thing people want to see on their News Feed is a crying match between two 7-year-olds.
Kids love to share, and Facebook could be an excellent platform for them to expand their imaginations and grow their friendships. But inviting children into the world of Facebook is also exposing them to a very dark world, at times. Bullying online is still a very serious issue, and we're seeing high rates of suicide in children and teenagers as a result. Hopefully, Facebook has figured out a way to let parents monitor their offspring so they know if their child is being bullied.
Ultimately, children need to be protected. If Facebook decides to accommodate users younger than 13 years old, it will need to find a way to create a platform that is separate from its main service: Interacting with our young nieces and nephews is nice, but I'm okay with keeping contact off-line until they're mature and ready to handle a Facebook account.
But unfortunately, this won't be the case. You can't stuff the genie back in the bottle, and now that the idea of adding children to Facebook has been introduced, it won't go away. Facebook was designed to be open, and Mark Zuckerberg knows that adding kids would help expand his overall number of registered users, as well as the all-important bottom line. But ultimately, Facebook's desire to open up to children is a "nice" idea, but it's not a practical one, or a safe one. Soon, kids will be wandering through Facebook, commenting on hundreds of photos and liking thousands of statuses, but that doesn't mean they should be.
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