Should Parents Have the Backdoor Key to Kids’ Facebook Accounts?

| May 18, 2011 | 9 Comments
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M. Markus

Concern about children’s safety and privacy online has led to a number of initiatives and programs — by schools, by private companies, and by government entities. These efforts are all aimed at protecting children and teens from what are perceived to be the big dangers on the Internet: sexual predators, advertisers, and bullies, for example, but they’re also at protecting children and teens from themselves.

A new proposed piece of legislation in California (SB242) aims to mandate new privacy policies and practices for social networking sites. Much of the language was initially framed in terms of protecting those under age 18. That age restriction has been taken out of the bill’s draft language, and now requires a number of changes to how social networks handle all their users’ privacy.

Should laws mandate children’s online activities, or should parents and children work that out together?

Facebook still does not allow users under 13 to register for an account – and the legislation won’t change existing age restrictions. But now all social networks will have to establish default settings that prevent public or private display of anything other than a user’s name and city without their consent. New users would have to establish their privacy settings during the registration process. Privacy options would need to be written in “plain language” and displayed in an “easy-to-use format.” Sites would have to remove personally identifying information, including photos, within 48 hours of a user’s – or a minor user’s parents’ – request. And companies could be fined up to $10,000 any time they fail to do any of this.

Not surprisingly, many notable Internet companies, including Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, Google and Skype, are expressing their opposition to the bill, saying that not only is it unnecessary, it violates the First Amendment, and would damage California’s technology sector.

Nonetheless the bill raises a number of interesting questions about how we think privacy and security online works — and for whom. Is there a difference between making the Internet safe for children, versus safe for teens, versus for anyone? Is it an easy slide between creating laws that address the security online of children under age 13 (as in COPPA), users under 18, and all users?

That line between who needs such protection is also at stake as federal legislators look to update COPPA, with the “Do Not Track Kids Online Act.” There was some concern that this new COPPA would also change the age limit on privacy protection measures from 13 to 18, but the draft introduced by Representatives Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has left the age limit the same but beefed up and modernized the language. (COPPA was first passed in 1998, in pre-Facebook and even pre-Google world.)

It isn’t just a matter of the age of a child that may or may not need better privacy protection online that has some onlookers concerned; it’s about the role of the parent. Although it may reassure some parents to know that a law could enable them to demand data about their child be pulled offline within 48 hours, some have interpreted the bill to mean that parents would also have a backdoor to their children’s social media accounts. Teen researcher danah boyd is among many who have balked at this idea asking “Why do well-intentioned politicians assume that parent-child dynamics are always healthy?”

How will these parental requests work? How will companies verify parenthood? What about divorced parents? Emancipated minors? When does parental access get revoked?

If parents need to have some sort of system for monitoring their children’s online activities, what should this look like? Should this be legislated? Should technology be used to negotiate children’s online activities, or should parents and children work that out together? That last option is ideal, perhaps, but is it realistic?

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  • Anonymous

    Here is great service to monitor you kids Facebook accounts  http://www.socialwebwatch.com  I use it for my 5 kids and love the results.  It reports anything inappropriate to me and I can investigate and discuss with my kids.

  • http://profiles.google.com/paintblock Garrett Blackwood

     Yes.

  • Camo_Lover

    How difficult is it for kids to lie about their age? They’ll all do it, just to use the internet.

  • Awbland

    Let’s be serious bill or no bill facebook doesn’t verify if a person is over 13. Parents don’t pay attention to what kids do or don’t care, my wife’s 7 and 9yo cousins have facebook pages. Until parents do their jobs a bill is pointless.

  • Dymone1

     Parents do need to take a stronger hand in both monitoring and protecting their children.  My daughter, 15 years old, has her own email, facebook and other gaming accounts, all of which I have login and password information to.  I do not need a backdoor or congress to legislate and frankly neither do any responsible parent.  They simply need to be more involved and aggressive in their children’s lives.

  • Robert

     Not everyone has had it as easy as I have in my efforts to protect my children. My kids have for the most part cooperated with me and my wife and made it easy to know where they are and what they are doing. For people who have not had this kind of luck, I would have to urge you to become more involved in your child’s life. We don’t need more laws, we need to realize how important our children are and make more time for them.

  • Pigletkb823

    I think parents should be the ones monitoring the social networking of their children. As long as they are still minors, it is the parent’s responsibility.  

  • http://twitter.com/dd_dienutza Diana Abu-Zuaiter

    Of course they should. My mum has the password of my sister and they check together her Facebook. Not only once strage men approached her, if it wasn’t for my mum, who knows what could have happened.

    I think children should be first educated of the advantages, disadvantages and most importantly dangers of social media. Many children committed suicide because of being bullied online.

    Facebook wants to change its regulations and permit children under 13 to have an account. What do you think about that? Do you think it is ok? Can children be regulated? Check out this post and share your views http://ethicalblabbing.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=269&action=edit

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ryan-Williams/100004621359964 Ryan Williams

    Without any question, parents need to know what their kids are doing online. Parents do do this to limit their kids lifestyle, but to protect them. There are a lot of unsafe sites out there and parents need to do what it takes to keep them safe. Use Sniper Spy to keep an eye on them. I used it and LOVE it.