Tweenage Wasteland

An under-13 Facebook would face a child-safety minefield

OMG, tweens are such a headache. That’s not news to parents who regularly grapple with their own prepubescents, but Mark Zuckerberg may be about to find out too.

Right now, Facebook is limited to users 13 and older, but as The Wall Street Journal first reported, tweens are very much on the social network’s radar. But experts on the demographic wonder whether the potential headaches, outside criticism, not to mention the limited revenue potential, make tweens worth it for Facebook and other social nets.

“There are a multitude of concerns if not done right,” said Jim Steyer, CEO/founder of the nonprofit Common Sense Media.

Not only could social networking negatively affect cognitive development, Steyer argued, but also a kid’s safety cannot be guaranteed no matter what the company’s technical prowess or monitoring assurances, he contends.

Steyer pointed to the dating app Skout, which suspended its teen community two weeks ago after three men were accused of using the site to target victims. Skout set up the teen community last year as a safeguard for 13-to-17-year-old users after noticing the demo had been skirting restrictions meant to keep them out of the 18-and-over community.

That rationale could explain why Facebook would consider developing an environment for under-13 users since it already has added safeguards in place for its 13-17-year-old users, such as minimizing who can contact these young users through the platform, and also preventing their profiles from appearing in public search listings.

“Many 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. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment,” said a Facebook spokesperson. 

Notice, Facebook hasn't said whether it will allow advertisers to target the under 13-crowd, assuming it ever lets these kids onto the site. Last week, a coalition of 14 consumer, privacy and child advocacy groups wrote a letter to Zuckerberg calling for any under-13 services to exclude advertising.

Rather than setting up an under-13 service, Steyer said Facebook should instead develop an extensive education campaign aimed at parents and educators to make clear that Facebook is only for users ages 13 and up. “In general, experienced children’s companies like Disney and Nickelodeon are the best people” to develop online social communities for kids, he said.

Perhaps, but even those companies are cautious when it comes to marketing to tweens. For example, while Disney’s online virtual world Club Penguin doesn’t feature ads, Nickelodeon’s online virtual world The Club carries banners from brands such as Honey Nut Cheerios.

Brands appear to be just as wary as publishers. The social ad firm TBG Digital analyzed 174 million Facebook ad impressions and found that cost-per-click rates for targeting users 16 and older were more than double those for 13-to-15-year-olds, while clickthrough rates were only 7.4 percent higher. That disparity stems from fewer advertisers chasing the under-16 set, said TBG Digital CEO Simon Mansell.

Kid-centric brands “definitely get extremely terrified” when a site on which they advertise encounters safety issues, said Keith Pape, vp of social, mobile and emerging media at the youth-focused interactive agency Ayzenberg Group, whose clients include Lego and Mattel. “The biggest question [for brands] always is: Are we going too far? Is this working? Is this safe?”

Pape pointed out that Habbo Hotel—an ad-supported virtual world “intended” for users aged 13 and older, per its service agreement—has been considered one of the safest environments for children. Still, the site shut down its chat function two weeks ago after a British news producer found that it was filled with sexually explicit content. That happened despite Habbo Hotel’s parent company Sulake employing more than 225 moderators who track roughly 70 million lines of conversation daily around the globe, according to Sulake's director of PR and communications Merja Turpeinen.

“Any online community that allows young users to assume virtual identities may be open to abuses, which is why we work hard to keep users safe, filtering content and blocking inappropriate users. We also provide education and rapid-response support to users who experience uncomfortable conversations,” Turpeinen said in an email.

As to whether Habbo Hotel would ever prohibit under-18 users from using the site or its chat functions, she said, “The future of the site is currently under internal review.”

You might say the whole tween social networking category is under review.

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