Underage Facebook users registered with parental blessings

When a service boasts an age restriction, there will always be a number of users who are underage. This continues to ring true with Facebook, after a report via CNET suggests that the underage users could be there with parental blessings.

In 1998, Congress passed COPPA: the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. This act was intended to restrict children from accessing materials where they would be able to provide excessive details, and become victim to company marketing and spam. The act also requests "verifiable parental consent" for children under the age of thirteen to use these services. The act was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but with modern services such as Facebook and Twitter both boasting users under the age of thirteen, COPPA's relevancy has been called into question.

It is important to note that COPPA does not completely rule out letting children under the age of thirteen access certain sites, but it does attempt to ensure that the sign-up process is difficult at minimum. Services targeted to children under thirteen, such as Disney's Club Penguin, do still comply with the law, but at considerable expense and effort. Companies such as Facebook, MySpace and Google+ attempt to block those who are not yet teenagers from accessing their services, and this is confirmed in their Terms of Service. Attempting to sign up with an age under thirteen is meant to block you from accessing the service, but there is a simple solution that has been discovered: don't sign up with a birth year making you under thirteen.

The FTC are investigating the effectiveness of COPPA. Some opinions want it liberalized, and its protections granted to those under the age of eighteen, instead of thirteen. Millions of children are still lying about their age to access networks such as Facebook. According to a 2010 McAfee report, up to 37% of children between the ages of ten and twelve use Facebook. In May, Consumer Reports claimed that "of the twenty million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million were younger than thirteen" and more than "five million were younger than ten".

Suffice to say, parenting has been called into question over the COPPA act, and some people have suggested parents do not take enough interest in the online activities of their children. A peer-reviewed study, released today, found that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their ages - and in some cases, even help their offspring to do so. The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive, having been plotted by Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and NYU, Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University, Jason Schultz from University of California, Berkeley, and John Palfrey from Harvard University. Below is a screen-capture from the report, which should sum up how well parents identify COPPA.

More information on the survey can be found at the site FirstMonday.org. As a side-note, however, how many people were aware of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act? COPPA was an act I, personally, was not aware of. Its relevance to users outside of the United States could be questioned, but it is interesting to see how much importance is placed upon it at present. With parents helping children to access services they should not be able to reach, it must be questioned whether COPPA is well-enough publicized.

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