Many parents help their kids lie to get on facebook. No big deal, right?

Posted by on Nov 14, 2011 | 5 comments

In the past couple of weeks, two very rich studies focusing on the online behavior of young people have been released. One of them is entitled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” co-authored by four of the leading thinkers on online privacy, access and the roles kids play on the internet.


The other is from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and is entitled “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites.”

I want to focus a bit more on the first study first, and leave the second study for another blog post. I would urge you to click on both links and peruse each of them, as they are rich in substance and fact.


Children under 13 are supposedly protected by COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) a Clinton-era law passed in 1998 meant to keep marketers from targeting or collecting information about kids. The law went into effect in 2000, when the internet was a very different place before the explosion of social networking sites, Skype or even GMail. Not that anyone has probably read them, but all of these services have lengthy terms of service agreements which, among lots of other things, are supposed to prevent kids from signing up for them if they’re under 13.


In reality what is happening is the very thing that COPPA was meant to prevent: kids are signing up for facebook and other services in droves, very often with their parents’ consent and, in many cases, their explicit help. Many parents are either unaware of COPPA or, worse yet, think that the 13-year old ban is more of a guideline and not a hard and fast regulation. A typical parental response to helping their kids get around the ban goes something like, “My child is mature enough to handle it.” To a large degree, parents feel that they should be the ones to decide how their kids participate online.


Fair enough. But the real takeaway from the report for me was the one I suspect is doing the most long-term damage. When parents help their kids get around these restrictions, they are normalizing lying. As danah boyd, one of the authors of the study, recently revealed on NPR’s On the Media, “I was aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location. So kids are hearing messages all around them that lying is both the way to get access and the way to be safe online.”


Clearly the COPPA mandated requirements are inadequate for today’s online landscape. So, then, what is the solution to keeping kids from being marketed to or otherwise tracked online by advertisers or others? What are some of the consequences to lying either to get online or lying once you’re already there?


boyd further notes that “…a huge number of kids actually say they’re from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be from.” It’s kind of a funny anecdote, but one that, I think,  has far-reaching implications.


What do you think of all this? Have you helped your kids circumvent any ToS agreements like the ones on Facebook, GMail or Skype? Is it really no big deal? Please leave a comment in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

5 Responses to “Many parents help their kids lie to get on facebook. No big deal, right?”

  1. Carl Franzon says:

    This caused me to go back and look at Google’s ToS. Google’s ToS says that I must be of legal age to form a binding contract and you cannot be a person banned by the laws of the US. Is a 15 year old of legal age to form a binding contract?

    I am not sure there is a good solution to stopping kids from being tracked online. It scares me every time I see the ads in Gmail that have things related to the text in my message.

    COPPA was well-intentioned, but it doesn’t seem to me to be the best approach. It makes the company close off their services to kids, but doesn’t actually stop them from using them.

    I think that in this case the regulations need to be put on the industry (good luck with that) and not on the individual. Maybe it’s a bad analogy, but I am thinking of the tobacco industry. If the logic of COPPA had been followed in regards to tobacco advertizing, the way kids would have been protected would not have been to remove tobacco ads from television, but instead kids under 13 would have been banned from watching television.

    If we are serious about competing in the digital age, we need to re-think laws like this.

    • Carl Franzon says:

      I went back and re-read the original article and realize that my analogy, as much as I liked it, was totally wrong.

      If I understand correctly, COPPA does not put the age restrictions on the use of sites like Facebook. Rather, it requires sits like FB to inform parents of collection policies and give the parents the ability to set preferences. FB and others simply took the easy route and said “no one under 13″.

      Age based solutions don’t seem to be the answer. As with many aspects of technology, the regulations can’t keep pace with the rate of change.

      • “Age based solutions don’t seem to be the answer. As with many aspects of technology, the regulations can’t keep pace with the rate of change.”

        And that, in a nutshell, is the toughest issue facing us now in the wild, wild west of online.

        Thanks for your posts, Carl.

  2. I speak to students and their parents on internet safety and responsibility. I always refer to COPPA and explain why you have to be 13 or older for some of these sites. Many parents did not know about the age restriction. When I ask kids to raise their hand if they are on Facebook, I see more and more young kids with an account. Many in third grade and according to my daughter, “everyone” in middle school. Except her. :)

    She will be 13 very soon and I will wake her up early and we will set up her Facebook account together. I am not thrilled about her having one, but I will set up her privacy settings and monitor while she learns how to use social networks responsibly. I wrote an article a few years ago about this subject, here is a link My answer

    I am a big fan of YourSphere and my kids are on that and have been learning safe social networking skills! As a parent, I have mixed feelings about teens (13+) using Facebook.

    I understand that this is the main way teens communicate with their friends.

    Parents have a responsibility to follow laws, set an example and teach their kids digital safety & online responsibility. Safety rules are basically the same online as offline, but you don’t assume they know. You must talk to them and have the talk, the online safety talk! :)


    • Thanks a lot for your comment, Cammie.

      These are treacherous and confusing times for parents. My concern, beyond the ineffectiveness of most regulations like COPPA, is the lessons we, as adults, pass on to our kids. The minute you show them it’s OK to lie to get around a rule you don’t like, I think the potential for harm is immense. Well-intentioned laws sometimes have unintended consequences that can exacerbate the problem they were trying to address. I think this is a stark example of that. In reality, the internet, and technology in general, moves WAY faster than the long arm of the law.

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