Not a week goes by without another story of an adult doing something colossally stupid on social media and paying the price. So why in the world did Facebook think it advisable to allow 13-year-old kids to make their pictures and status updates public?
In a widely-decried move, Facebook announced last week that underage users — those between 13 and 17, as kids younger than 13 are technically not allowed to open accounts — would now be able to share their status messages and updates with the world and accept "Followers" on the site. In non-tech terms, that means that teenagers can now make their pictures and life updates accessible to a group of people they don't necessarily know ("Followers") and the world at large.
Adults more familiar with teenage behavior disagreed.
Tech-Savvy, But Susceptible
Claire Lilley of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) wrote in the U.K. Mail, "It's simply not acceptable for Facebook to expect children to take 100 percent responsibility for managing not just their settings but their levels of risk too; teenagers aren't always going to be careful about what they post."
Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and the co-founder and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told NBC News, "Kids are familiar with a lot of different marketing and a lot of different brands, and they know how to use technological [sic], that's incredibly clear," but that "their judgment is still isn't adult and they're susceptible to manipulation."
Facebook responded to criticism by pointing to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project about teens' attitudes about social media. In it, teenagers told Pew that they believed that it was "not difficult at all" to manage their privacy settings on Facebook — which is not actual evidence that they are managing their privacy settings as well as they think, or that their ideas of appropriate privacy levels are similar to those of an adult. In another part of the survey, as noted by NBC News, only 9 percent of those same teens expressed much concern that advertisers and marketers might be gathering, let alone using, their data.
That's not the even the worst of it — The Daily Mail pointed to a 40-hour study by the Internet Watch Foundation that discovered more than 12,000 self-generated pictures and videos by teens on pedophile websites. Today's "cute" selfie — even when it's not inappropriate — can quite easily become tomorrow's pervert fodder, especially when one takes into account Facebook's new "graph" search, which allows users to more easily find any public content.
The Guardians of Their Own Content?
I'll be the first one to admit that a teenager can figure out all the new shortcuts in iOS7 faster than I can — which, like the joke about teenagers being the only ones able to program the family VCR so many years ago, makes them more intuitive about how the newest electronics and software work. This, however, does not make them more "savvy" about the implications of technology, privacy or the staying power of information the Internet. Few 13-year-olds are contemplating the repercussions of a Facebook faux pas on their job prospects after college.
But whether it's the teens who trashed former NFL player Brian Holloway's house and posted the evidence for all to see on social media sites, or the sad story of Amanda Todd, who was bullied by classmates on Facebook to the point of suicide after taking a topless photo surfaced, there's ample evidence that the technological skills of teens have little correlation to their ability to accurately assess the long-term consequences of their online actions.
While Facebook has repeatedly denied a financial motivation behind the privacy changes, it's clear that the move is motivated by a desire to retain an audience thought to be abandoning the platform, and whose business model is accessing eyeballs and data for advertisers. You would think Facebook would think twice about the implications of allowing underage kids' information, pictures and words to be part of the public record. After all, the people running Facebook aren't kids anymore.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.