As you probably are aware, rumor mills are speculating that Facebook is preparing to open up its service to kids under 13. There was an excellent bit on this on NPR on Sunday <link not easily searchable> and I am sharing some things I heard in that news piece and my thoughts on the matter.
Under Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), Facebook and such online services are significantly restricted if not fully banned for kids under 13. There is an interesting book on the topic called Talking Back to Facebookthat was featured on NPR a week ago. It brings up interesting questions on the impact of Facebook on our lives with a specific focus on its impact on kids.
What it means to Facebook
Facebook (of the much maligned IPO fame) is working hard to identify new revenue streams to propel its growth to justify its high valuation. While its subscriber base continues to grow, it is slowing down because much of America is on Facebook already. It is turning to a segment that has not yet been officially mined – kids under 13. Under COPPA, Facebook is not technically available for kids under 13. It makes excellent business sense for Facebook and could become potentially lucrative and well-received if done right. But it is not without significant risks and attention. But the reward definitely outweighs the risks. If Facebook can execute on a good plan to deliver the service officially to kids under 13, they could unlock a potential goldmine that will give them great subscriber growth for years to come.
Why is it challenging for Facebook to deliver such a service to under 13 kids?. To put it simply, display ads, subscriptions and stalking. The bulk of Facebook’s revenue comes from targeted ads you see on the right side corner of your Facebook page. These ads are tailored based on the user’s friends lists, pages they visit in and out of Facebook (tracked via the OpenGraph system), their Likes and so on. These ads are algorithm driven solutions that will generate ads based on the aforementioned variables. Some or many of these ads may and will not be suitable for kids. So Facebook has to implement a sophisticated system that prevents such ads from getting displayed on the pages and feeds of under 13 kids. In addition, ads need to be categorized based on target audience to allow for Facebook to then manage what gets delivered to kids and what doesn’t.
Kids should also be prevented from subscribing to feeds that can potentially contain objectionable content. This is easier said that done. What is traditionally a safe feed could be polluted by one non kid-friendly post that will cause the whole pack of cards to collapse. Managing subscriptions on a post by post basis is a huge task, if at all possible.
Finally, online social networks are huge magnets for sexual predators and pedophiles. If Facebook opens up its service to under 13 kids, securing kids from such people will be a massive challenge. While parents will have to play a very strong role in managing who their kids friend and subscribe to, unwanted people will manage to fall through the safety net. All it takes is one bad episode and things will get extremely political and nasty for Facebook.
One of the interesting tidbits from the NPR news article was that parents of kids under 13 are active in setting up accounts for their kids. They see value in their kids having a social network of their own. They also think they can manage their friend circle effectively. This is something of a revelation given how paranoid parents are with the security of their young kids. So Facebook might only be making what is already happening unofficially, official. But therein lies the problem. Making it official only makes it open to lawsuits if things were to go wrong. But with things staying unofficial, Facebook is not responsible for parents taking the onus and setting up their kids accounts.
For now, Facebook is content having a page describing all that it does to ensure your privacy as a Facebook user, and specifically as a parent interested in the privacy of his or her children.
There may be real value in kids having an online social network. The question for parents to answer is if it is worth the risk?.