Facebook may allow children under 13 on its social network: could it solve age verification on the Internet?

There’s certain to be a lot of scrutiny and backlash over any implementation of Facebook accounts for children under 13, which the social network is reportedly exploring. But if the company can find an appropriate balance of features and parental controls, it may be able to serve users in new ways and help solve the Internet-wide issue of age verification.

Facebook currently requires users to be at least 13 years old, but some studies have found a significant number of children are on the site anyway. Users lying about their age goes against Facebook’s emphasis on “real identity,” but it also puts the company in a precarious position as far as how it handles children’s privacy and safety.

“Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services,” Facebook said in statement to the Wall Street Journal. “We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.”

Notice that Facebook did not refer to its own platform in that statement. The wording is designed to avoid implying that any particular features are in the works, but it also reinforces Facebook’s philosophy that everything it does has wider implications for the Web. If Facebook can get younger users to create legitimate accounts that are verified by their parents, other websites and applications could end up using Facebook login to verify a user’s age and tailor the experience appropriately. Currently, websites will ask users to self-report their age, but they do not do anything to verify whether that is the same age a person has used on other sites. Apps that connect with Facebook are more likely to be able to confirm whether a user is over 18 or 21, for example, but if much younger users are lying about their age to get onto the social network, then Facebook login won’t necessarily help. If Facebook becomes the standard for age-gating online content, then there is an incentive for parents to make sure their children have an account with their correct birthdate.

As for how lowering the age barrier would affect Facebook itself, we imagine that an under-13 version of the site would have significant restrictions on who could see a child’s profile and what features children can access. For example, currently Facebook prevents any minor from posting anything publicly — the widest privacy setting they can enable is friends of friends. Facebook also sets location sharing as off by default for users under 18. Wall Street Journal sources say Facebook is looking at ways to give parents control over the people and applications their children connect with on the site.

The social network will likely limit — or possibly forgo — advertising to users under 13. Facebook’s ad model emphasizes friend connections to encourage users to connect with pages or apps. The company recently settled a lawsuit that claimed its Sponsored Stories misappropriated users’ names and photos for advertising. Using children’s identities this way is likely to be even more sensitive. Most existing social networks for young people avoid advertising. Some charge membership subscription fees, but Facebook isn’t likely to go that route since it emphasizes that it is a free service. It could instead monetize through the use of Facebook Credits for games and other digital goods. Payments from Credits made up about 15 percent of Facebook’s more than $3.7 billion in revenue in 2011. Many parents already let their kids play games from their account, and  some of the most popular sites for kids are virtual world games like Club Penguin, Webkinz and Moshi Monsters.

Walt Disney Co., which owns Club Penguin, has a strong position in kids’ social networking and has reportedly had discussions with Facebook about opening up the site to younger users. Disney recently acquired Togetherville, a site that used Facebook login to allow parents to manage their kids’ accounts and connect with other parents, but it shut the site down in March. Disney’s social networking efforts are primarily entertainment-based rather than utility-focused, as Facebook is. For example, elementary education might be an area that gets reshaped by Facebook. We’ve already seen Khan Academy and Grockit integrate Open Graph to share teens’ studying and test-prep activity. Facebook itself has introduced new university-only groups that help students connect, organize events and share documents. With time, we could see ways for younger students to benefit from online networking.

Facebook could also help parents chronicle their kids’ lives with Timeline. Some users have already begun to do this after having a new baby, but because of age restrictions, parents have to set a fake birth year. Facebook could build a better process for helping parents’ document important events in their kids’ lives and then enabling accounts to be transferred to children over time.

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