Infrastructure

Facebook Considers Expanding Access to 13 and Younger Crowd

By Michelle R. Davis — June 11, 2012 4 min read
An 11-year-old girl looks at the Facebook site on her computer at home in Palo Alto, Calif. Though Facebook bans children under 13, millions of them have profiles on the site by lying about their age. The social networking company is now testing ways to allow kids to participate without needing to lie.

Principal Lynmarie Hilt has found that Facebook is the most efficient way of communicating with parents at her K-6 Denver elementary school.

But the news last week that Facebook is considering opening its site to preteen users has spurred her to think also about its potential educational value for her students.

With the revelation by The Wall Street Journal that Facebook may be looking to expand its reported 900 million users worldwide by reaching out to younger children, a flurry of both interest and concern has ensued among educators.

Some see a potential opportunity to educate youngsters on how to use social networking before they get into trouble with it, and a chance to enlist Facebook’s collaborative tools as an aid to instruction. Others worry that such a move by the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company could fuel an increase in cyberbullying among elementary and middle school students, and that educators have a limited ability to monitor such a site for misuse. Ms. Hilt said she and her teachers at Brecknock Elementary School have not used the social-networking site with students, since Facebook’s current terms of service prohibit children younger than 13 from having a profile on the site.

If those terms change, however, she may encourage the use of Facebook with her students for educational purposes, particularly because she’s aware that many of her older students already have Facebook profiles, with or without the permission of their parents.

“Teachers could do a lot with communication with students around classroom happenings, organizing group work, and sharing among students,” with the proper controls in place, Ms. Hilt said. “We would want to have a really good digital-citizenship piece to help them understand, at a young age, the way to be responsible and respectful online.”

Many students under 13, like some at Ms. Hilt’s school, are already using Facebook. A 2010 peer-reviewed study sponsored by Microsoft Research, the computer-science research arm of the Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp., found that 19 percent of 10-year-olds, 32 percent of 11-year-olds, and 55 percent of 12-year-olds had Facebook accounts. The study also found that a majority of parents questioned were aware that their children under 13 had accounts.

“Although many sites restrict access to children, our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age—in fact, often help them to do so—in order to gain access to age-restricted sites in violation of those sites’ [terms of service],” the study said.

Parental Supervision?

Timothy Gywnn, an instructional technology facilitator at Winecoff Elementary School, a pre-K-5 school in Concord, N.C., said that even though he’s aware that some students at his school already have Facebook pages, many other online tools exist to give students the benefits of social media for education in a safer environment. His school uses Gaggle, an online-learning-tool provider, which has a social-networking feature.

“In this environment, if a student makes a mistake, there’s an easy way to fix it and move forward,” Mr. Gwynn said.

Ann Flynn, the director of educational technology for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said she’s seeing an increasing number of edcational social-networking sites teachers can use to allow students to share their work and get feedback, to collaborate with other students and classes around the globe, and to express their ideas.

Those sites, which include Edmodo and ePals, allow educators, and sometimes parents, to track communication between students and teachers, to easily restrict access to group or individual profiles, and to provide more guaranteed privacy.

“Social networking is really helping students in their development,” Ms. Flynn said, “but it doesn’t have to happen on Facebook.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook is mulling the idea of linking the profiles of children under age 13 to those of their parents, possibly allowing the adults to decide and screen whom a child can “friend” and to limit navigation and the use of apps.

Nancy E. Willard, the executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, based in Eugene, Ore., said that because of the number of children under 13 already on the site, she applauds Facebook’s attempt to tackle the problem. She hopes the social-networking company will significantly modify privacy settings and advertising aimed at that group of children.

Ms. Willard said it’s likely,though, that such a move would increase the amount of cyberbullying that takes place on Facebook, and that the site is too public for teachers and principals to use as an educational tool.

“A principal would have to rely on the fact that every single teacher has set up their system accurately, nobody changes it, and that Facebook doesn’t change their operations,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Even if educators don’t embrace Facebook formally, if children under 13 are permitted to use the site, they will likely do so on their own, said Kerry E. Gallagher, a history teacher at Reading Memorial High School in Reading, Mass.

Though she hasn’t set up a formal Facebook page for her current students, she’s aware that some of her classes have created their own Facebook study groups to organize projects and trade resources.

But she wonders whether Facebook is “going to be able to monitor and enforce rules in a meaningful way” for younger students.

“I’m not sure what Facebook could accomplish,” she said, “that we can’t already do in a more secure system [provided by the school].”

Editorial Intern Mike Bock contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Facebook Considers Access for 13-and-Younger Crowd

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