Facebook has an ugly little secret, a number disclosed nowhere in its voluminous filings to become a public company and now only vaguely addressed by corporate officials.
An estimated 5.6 million Facebook clients — about 3.5 percent of its US users – are children who the company says are banned from the site.
Facebook and many other web sites bar people under age 13 because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires web sites to give special treatment to children 12 or younger. The law aims to stop marketers prying personal information from children or using their data to advertise to them. Sites must get parental permission before allowing children to enter, and must take steps to protect privacy.
Facebook declines to acknowledge that many of its efforts to block children are not working.
The issue has taken on new relevance as the Federal Trade Commission finalizes rules to further restrict companies and Web sites that target youths or are geared to young audiences.
Facebook, the world’s leading social media company with 955 million users, has said that the law does not apply to it because it explicitly restricts use of its site to people aged 13 and older.
Facebook has made some progress in identifying preteens and excluding them from the site. A June Consumer Reports study showed that Facebook eliminates as many as 800,000 users under age 13 in a year through its tiered screening process, which the company declines to describe.
The study still estimates 5.6 million children are on Facebook, a figure that experts say includes many who create accounts with help from their parents.
The Consumer Reports data comes from a January 2012 survey of 2,002 adults with home Internet. Participants were chosen by TNS, a research firm. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
“It’s not surprising to us to see 12-year-olds sneaking onto Facebook,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, saying the situation was “particularly complicated” if parents helped them. “Is it troubling? In some ways it is. Is it a story in black and white? Not really.”
A Reuters test of Facebook’s signup process shows that a child could bypass the site’s screening features with relative ease. The site effectively blocked a fictitious sign-up from an underage prospective user. But after an hour’s wait, the site accepted a sign-up using the same name, email, password and birthday but citing a different birth year.
Facebook declined to discuss the data or describe its efforts to outlaw children. Spokesman Frederic Wolens said in an email that Facebook is “committed to improving protections for all young people online.”
Larry Magid, who serves on Facebook’s advisory board and co-directs the Internet group Connect Safely, said he and others studied the issue for a year and found no way to tell if children were lying online.
“The only solution that I am aware of is to access some sort of national ID or school records,” he said. “There are good reasons that we don’t do this. … I’m sure this is really easy to do in totalitarian regimes.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, an outspoken privacy advocate whose youngest child is 18, said children’s vulnerability to potential sexual predators and susceptibility to advertising were reasons to keep the 12-and under set off most web sites. “Our children were not on Facebook at that age, and they would not be now,” he said.
When gullible preteens or “tweens” go online they often reveal sensitive data, said Kathryn Montgomery, who teaches at American University and was an early advocate of the 1998 COPPA Tlaw.
“What we hoped to do with these kinds of rules is to get companies to act responsibly toward kids. It’s not easy to do,” said Montgomery.