Before going back to school next week, many kids under the age of 13 are facing an ethical dilemma: with seemingly everyone in the world on Facebook, should they lie about their age in order to get their own account on the popular site?
The pressures of being involved in social media have never been greater, but it may come as a surprise to some kids that creating a Facebook profile before they are teenagers actually breaks the rules and conditions of the site itself.
The site’s policy states clearly that “you will not use Facebook if you are under 13,” as well as, “you will not provide any false personal information.”
But according to the latest Consumer Report, six million preteens in the U.S. alone currently have Facebook accounts under false pretenses.
Facebook’s policy is largely informed by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a U.S. federal law that prohibits organizations from gathering personal information from people under the age of 13 without a guardian’s permission.
According to the site’s rules, if youngsters are discovered to be under 13, they could lose their Facebook privileges for life.
Tony, a lumber store employee who lives in Toronto and wanted his last name withheld for privacy reasons, says his two sons, aged 10 and 15, both have Facebook accounts.
“My wife signed my youngest boy up, but she used my birth date. Now, all his friends send my son birthday greetings on my birthday,” Tony says.
He defends his wife by saying, “At least she knows their passwords and monitors all their friends, so if some stranger from Denmark wants to be their friend, my wife says no.”
Dr. Faye Mishna, dean of the Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, says there’s no question Facebook creates a platform for cyber bullying to thrive.
But there are also stories about kids being targeted for not having a Facebook account, when all of their friends do.
One Toronto mother of three boys under the age of 13, who wishes not to disclose her name, tells the story of her 12-year-old son, Sean, and a rather mean-spirited classmate.
“A boy in my son’s class opened a Facebook account in my son’s name. Then the boy invited all of my son’s friends to join him. But the friends started seeing pornographic images and scantily dressed girls and they started asking my son what’s going on. That’s when we realized what had happened. The classmate had stolen my son’s identity, lied about his age and created a pornographic site.”
“No question that’s a clear case of cyber-bullying,” says Dr. Mishna. She stresses, however, that the majority of kids have a positive or neutral experience on Facebook.Sean’s mother says the fiasco caused the family a lot of agony last school year, and now they all agree that none of her boys will be getting Facebook accounts until they are at least 13.
Police in most Canadian cities visit school classrooms to offer advice about how to be safe on Facebook if you do decide to lie about your age and open an account.
Dr. Mishna says it is a real dilemma, because kids shouldn’t be encouraged to lie. Then again, parents know that Facebook is a good way to stay connected with friends and family.
“There’s not an easy answer to it,” says Dr. Mishna.
“I would say, ultimately, you don’t want to say [to your child] ‘Lie,’ but you don’t want them to go underground and do it anyway. Keep the lines of communication open. We don’t want to give them a message that shuts them down.”
Dr. Mishna compares the Facebook dilemma to one of the big social issues of her youth: drinking and driving.
“We always say to kids, ‘Don’t drink,’ but we know they go to parties when they’re under age and they drink. So when I was young, they used to say, ‘Just don’t drink,’ and then kids would drink, drive and then get into accidents.
“Over the years, adults have gotten smarter. They still say, ‘Don’t drink — but if you do drink, phone up your parents.’ And messages also go out to the parents – if your kid phones you, go pick them up. Keep them safe, then deal with it. Same goes for cyberspace.”
This summer, Facebook announced that it would be looking for ways to open its pages to younger users without forcing them to lie about their age and still protecting them from trolls and cyber bullies.
One proposed measure is to link their accounts to their parents’ accounts, and giving their parents veto power over who they can “friend.”
But until that happens, the ethical quandary remains for pre-teens and their guardians.
CBC News followed Izzy (last name withheld), an 11-year-old Toronto girl who wants a Facebook account but is too young to get one legitimately, as she visited a social media expert with the Metropolitan Toronto Police.