Opinion: Why Facebook Isn't a Place for Kids

Social networking has changed the way many of us communicate with friends and family, how we share information, how we learn and how we entertain ourselves. Social media has affected how people think of themselves, manage their social lives and run their businesses.

Mary Kay Hoal
Mary Kay Hoal

Not since the Industrial Revolution has anything had such an effect on our culture that social media has. With past media -- print, radio and TV -- we were simply the consumers. We read the articles that were written by journalists, listened to what was being broadcast on the radio and watched whatever program was airing on TV. With social media, we are the producers; we are the digital participants; we are the product and we are the media. We have the choice! The technology network is just the tool -- it's our local paper, our FM station and our TV channel.

Rich in their offerings, rewards and opportunities, today's social networks -- Facebook being the primary one -- are intended for adults. As with the advent of cable TV, the children's version of social networks are being established only now.

My perspective as a mother of five, an Internet-safety expert and a publisher of a kids' social network, is that our children deserve a healthier social networking experience. I know most children would never seek out the adult content and culture on Facebook, but the fact is, it comes to them. Sadly, Facebook allows these things to go on even though they know children are using their site. (Read Facebook's response to criticism of Facebook use by children on the next page.)

Social media is new, and there's still much to be learned by those who use and create it. To put it in perspective, if Facebook were a child he/she would be in second grade, but if it were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. Facebook's newness and massive size, combined with a lack of parental vision, leaves its focus not on the well-being of children but on the adult-oriented social features and openness of the site.

Nothing could show this more than Facebook's membership requirements and the culture inside the site. They clearly aren't focused primarily on providing what's best for our kids, nor should they be. Remember: Facebook was created to connect the college crowd and, later, adults.

Despite recent proclamations (and later retractions) by Facebook that younger children should be allowed on the site, their home page very clearly indicates they do not want children to join. Their sign-up process requires a member to be at least 13 years of age. Additionally, Facebook's business model prohibits them from providing the privacy safeguards that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires website operators to supply for children 12 and under.

A child's privacy is immediately at risk when he/she supplies or discloses the personally identifiable information that Facebook requests, such as: first name, last name, date of birth, email and IM addresses, cellphone number, school name, and/or exact physical location. That this data is collected at all is problematic; even more so is the ease with which the site allows it to be shared with third parties. As for Facebook's privacy settings, keeping up with them can be difficult for most adults, let alone children.

Here are some specific examples of why Facebook isn't a safe place for children:

- Facebook, like the Internet itself, is a large, open network that has been used for the support and distribution of child pornography. Proponents of The North American Man/Boy Love Association (which advocates legalizing consensual sex between boys and men) promoted their beliefs on Facebook until news stories led the company to remove relevant pages.

- Facebook has been host to malicious applications and websites to help people stalk and/or lure users, children included.

- Facebook members have harassed other members.

- Some Facebook games and apps sexualize children.

Most Children Don't Seek Smut, But It Finds Them

These examples represent only a subset of the risk the network poses. I don't think Facebook is "bad." My company and I benefit from Facebook and other social media tools every day. I think Facebook is an extremely useful social tool for adults and older teens that have the cognitive ability and life experience to use the network responsibly.

Social media came at us like a landslide. Most families haven't been educated about its power and pitfalls, its rules and ramifications. I want every family to have that opportunity. I want parents to be involved in their children's online choices armed with a full understanding of the issues. I want children to be empowered through social media by learning the importance of responsible digital citizenship, by understanding what online privacy means, and by being a part of an age-appropriate and supportive social network. Then, with peace of mind and parental involvement, our children can graduate to the adult-intended networks like Facebook.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Read more about Mary Kay Hoal here.

Learn more about cyber safety on the "20/20 We Find Them" page.

A Statement From Facebook:

Facebook has a clear policy that only people over the age of 13 can use the service. However, recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don't circumvent a system or lie about their age. We appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online.

We agree with safety experts that communication between parents/guardians and kids about their use of the Internet is vital. We believe that services such as Facebook have a role to play in encouraging this. Our recent announcements around social reporting and our family safety center are testimonies to our ongoing efforts to ensure we are giving detailed and helpful advice to help support these conversations. Just as parents are always teaching and reminding kids how to cross the road safely, talking about internet safety should be just as important a lesson to learn.