This week, Facebook proposed allowing children under thirteen (the site’s current age requirement) to sign up; the kids’ accounts would be linked to and monitored by parents’ accounts, at least insofar as parents take on that supervisory role. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act limits the information that websites can legally collect from children under thirteen, but connecting to parental accounts bypasses those restrictions and, let’s be honest, offers Facebook a new demographic’s data to mine. It’s no secret that children represent a huge marketing opportunity. Given Facebook’s recent disappointing public debut and widespread investor skepticism that the site can maintain its rate of growth, I’m unsurprised at the news that the company is looking for an untapped share of the market.
The difference when it comes to Facebook is that its capital comes not so much from our money (though it’s tapping into that resource in more creative ways), but from something much more valuable—our information. While the site’s login page asserts “It’s free and always will be,” savvy users recognize that there are different kinds of costs and many ways to pay. Take, for instance, the recent New York Times article about the way hitting a “Like” button works on Facebook. Most adult users don’t realize or don’t reflect on the fact that clicking “Like” can turn seemingly innocent posts into “sponsored stories.” Sharing your love of a certain book or a coffee brand or a clothing company becomes your personal product endorsement, and that’s something that users agree to (though most of us don’t read the whole contract) when we sign up for Facebook. It’s legal, and it’s extremely effective advertising, because Facebook recognizes that we trust our friends (and all of their “Likes”) in a way that we would never trust a corporation.
Consider also the corporate pages on Facebook, which are designed to look just like our friends’ pages; a company has status updates and timelines and pictures of our actual human friends who “Like” the page. These friendly Facebook features help advertisers to more effectively target their audiences, to glean more information about audiences’ preferences, and to let users post free advertisements on personal pages. And the stakes are high for tapping into the pre-teen market. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), advertising is a $250 billion-dollar-a-year business, with children under twelve accounting for $25 billion. Children and teenagers further influence another $200 billion of their parents’ spending. Further, when it comes to children under eight, they are not developmentally able to critically view advertisements and lack the understanding of persuasion with the intent to sell products or services. Convincing kids—and their parents—to sign up the whole family for Facebook isn’t just about making the world a more open network. It’s big business.
As I’ve said in a number of ways in this column, I tend to favor discernment over censorship. I use and enjoy Facebook myself, with carefully limited choices about my “Friends” as well as what I post on my page and what I “Like.” I try to stay up-to-date on the latest privacy settings so that I can balance my sharing with controlling the information that I provide. I also realize that society is different with Facebook, and I don’t get to control all of the content that others post about me (or my children) on the Internet. Living in the Internet age involves risks and compromises to traditional concepts of privacy, whether we choose to partake in social media sites or not. The challenge for parents of pre-teens involves explaining those risks to a generation who has never known anything else.