Despite the best intentions of Facebook employees, government officials, parents, and even teens themselves, all of whom want to make sure kids are super safe online, minors reveal a dangerous amount of information on Facebook, according to a new study. It may take a village to raise a child, but, apparently, it takes more than a village to make sure that child doesn't unwittingly endanger all of his friends.
The study, co-authored by NYU computer science professor Keith W. Ross, found that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (often called Coppa), the federal law that's supposed to protect children's privacy online, actually makes kids reveal more sensitive info than they would in a country without Coppa.
Here's the catch-22: Facebook bars kids under 13 from signing up for an account because of the law, which mandates that websites get parental consent before mining children 13 and under for personal data. (Unless they post a Facebook status about copyright invoking the Berner Convention, that is. Kidding!) But because eeeeveryone is on Facebook these days, from your 90-year-old great aunt to your 10-year-old cousin, kids often lie about their ages. Parents often help them do so, because they figure they're gonna get on there, anyway, so it's better if they can monitor their online activity — also, because there are only so many times you can hear a tween whine about how everyone in the 6th grade will think she's a loser if she can't post One Direction memes on her BFF's wall. More than five million children under age 13 signed up for Facebook this year, according to Consumer Reports estimates.
So everyone's happy, right? Sarah gets to post those One Direction memes and her mom gets to make sure she's not Facebook chatting with anyone she shouldn't be. Well, everything might be fine for Sarah, but not for her friends: the study found that the small amount of students who lie about their age enable total strangers to glean very personal info about their peers, especially after they turn 18 in "Facebook years," aka 15 in "real kids who lied about their age" years.
Here's how it worked, according to the New York Times:
The key to the experiment...was to first find known current students at a particular high school. A child could be found, for instance, if she was 10 years old and said she was 13 to sign up for Facebook. Five years later, that same child would show up as 18 years old – an adult, in the eyes of Facebook - when in fact she was only 15. At that point, a stranger could also see a list of her friends.
The researchers conducted their experiment at three high schools. They were able to construct the Facebook identities of most of the schools' current students, including their names, genders and profile pictures.
The researchers identified neither the schools nor any of the students. Their paper is awaiting publication.
Using a publicly available database of registered voters, someone could also match the children's last names with their parents' - and potentially, their home addresses, Professor Ross pointed out.
The Coppa law, he argued, seemed to serve as an incentive for children to lie, but made it no less difficult to verify their real age.
Well, fuck. So what's the solution? "In a Coppa-less world, most kids would be honest about their age when creating accounts. They would then be treated as minors until they're actually 18," Ross said. "We show that in a Coppa-less world, the attacker finds far fewer students, and for the students he finds, the profiles have very little information."
Will our government take this study and similar research efforts seriously? They should, since it's clear no one actually knows how to make sure kids are safe online. The Times cites studies that show that most parents AND most minors actively try to control the latter group's privacy settings. Yet, any random stranger can track down info about 9th graders because, in the paper's words, many parents feel like Facebook's minimum age requirement is "a recommendation, akin to a PG-13 movie rating." Except that when kids sneak into Pitch Perfect or whatever, they don't put their friends in danger.
It's unlikely that the number of Facebook users who are secretly under 13 will drop; if anything, it'll rise. In a perfect world, little kids would spend all of their time building forts and reading classic children's books and getting plenty of fresh air outside; they wouldn't want to go on Facebook at all. But it's time to come to terms with the fact that inconceivably young kids are on Facebook, whether we like it or not, and if we want to protect them, we have to restrategize.
Image via Cartoonresource/Shutterstock.