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Zuckerberg wants Facebook access for children under 13, but is it a good idea?
July 22, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — A topic of interest, lately, has been Facebook's handling of users under the age of 13. Reported widely several weeks ago, Consumer Reports released statistics indicating that 7.5 million children under the age of 13 have secretly gained access to Facebook accounts. There were concerns voiced ranging from privacy issues to rules governing the advertising industry and the concerns inherent to serving advertisements to young children, even if inadvertent.

In another twist to the ongoing saga, CEO and President Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, added his viewpoint of the fray. He expressed his opinion that children under the age of 13 should be permitted to access Facebook. As part of his statements he indicated a caveat that further research would be necessitated in order to ensure a greater level of security for this age group. Zuckerberg took the offense in discussing how to make this a reality. "That will be a fight we take on at some point," he asserted, in reference to providing access to those under 13, according to Yahoo news.

This population is currently denied formal access to Facebook services as a result of the Children' Online Privacy Protection Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1998.

One concern for individuals of all ages, but particularly those belonging to the younger generation, is the objectionable content that can be found on social networking sites. While there are efforts to curb this, no system is perfect and Facebook is not an exception. With over 500 million users, it is impossible for each and every upload to be reviewed before it is published online, according to Facebook statistics. Relying largely on users to report inappropriate content, it becomes relatively easy for obscene material to penetrate the Facebook ecosystem. Lewd photographs are not the only threat, however.

In an online community that thrives on verbal interaction, language becomes another hurdle to deal with. Hate speech and other vicious attacks can be hurdled in this unmoderated environment without ease. Swear words are not censored. Even the traditional form of automatically replacing part of the word with asterisks is ignored.

At the moment, gaining access to Facebook by someone under the age of 13 can be easily accomplished with some minimal mathematic abilities. Simply calculate a date that is at least 13 years earlier than today's date and you have managed to hoodwink a very complex network of computer systems.

Unable to think on their own, these computers have no way of performing an independent verification of the registrant's age. This is an unfortunate flaw that is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. Nobody would stand for the hassle of sending their birth certificate to Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters for verification, even if it did mean a golden ticket into the wonderful world of social networking.

Engage children in discussions about the dangers of social networking. Social networking fosters a world where nothing is ever as it seems. Whether it is an innocuous profile that sports a photo taken decades ago before you put on those 50 pounds, or an entire new persona, the ease with which deception flourishes in these environments underscores the need for diligence.

It is this level of caution that an immature child would unlikely be able to discern when asked for their phone number, for example, or address. Even if taught properly, someone under the age of 13 may not realize that seemingly immaterial pieces of information could be damaging if released. While taught better than to directly reveal an address, a child may not understand that revealing a parent's name could quickly lead to a match in a telephone book.

Ultimately, this is a fight that will occur on Capitol Hill between lobbyists and legislators. A parallel battle is currently raging within the walls of homes across America. Establish firm policies regarding what boundaries you expect your children to abide by. Ensure that you monitor their behavior closely and hold them responsible for their actions.

Joseph Irvine is a self-employed computer engineer in Madison, Ala. A graduate of Utah State University, he hopes to pursue a degree in law at BYU in the near future.