Underage on Facebook?

By Linda McCarthyInternet Security Advocate and GurlTrendz.com Expert

Social networking is such an intrinsic part of life these days. No matter how hard you try it’s almost impossible to keep your children away from it. As a concerned parent, the dilemma is always between keeping your children with the times and protecting them from the dangerous parts that come with new technologies.

So this brings us to Facebook. It is currently estimated that there are more than 1 billion active Facebook accounts, and it’s completely understandable that your child wants one. Statistics show that more than 7 million kids under the age of 13 are already on Facebook.

Nonetheless, the Facebook team really is concerned about your family’s safety. Although the terms of service state that you have to be 13 to create an account, there is no way to prove how old someone is when they sign up. That’s why when you meet someone who claims to be15, he or she may really be a creepy 45-year-old.

I can’t tell you that it’s OK for your kid to be on Facebook. Every family and situation is different. Some kids just happen to be more mature than others and can navigate their way through the security and privacy settings. Other kids just don’t take the time to do that. This is where they get into trouble. 

A good example of this is when kids leave their accounts wide open to the public and let thousands of people in as Friends. They would never open the front door and let every kid in the neighborhood in as a friend, but on the Internet, they don’t think about the consequences. They even think it’s cool to have thousands of Friends.  However, they really don’t know who is peeking into their life when they do that.

Facebook has many security and privacy settings that help lockdown the account. However, you have to configure most of these settings. After one of the kids (Eric) on my home network created his social networking account when he was 12, I sat down with him and asked him some questions. It turned out he said that he was 19. When you turn 19 years old on Facebook, you lose some of the cool privacy settings that younger kids automatically have.

I know that if I told Eric that he could not have the account, he could easily go to his friend’s house and use the account from there. Instead of taking that approach, I talked about safety, the creeps, and not posting too much personal information. Eric also thought it was cool to have 2,000 Friends. Obviously, most of them were people he did not know that now had access to him.

I knew that social networks were not going away, so it was better in MY house to teach the kids the rules of the road and what to watch out for. I can’t tell you what to do in your own home. You know your kids and what they are capable of, so it’s best to make this decision based on your family’s dynamics and environment. If your child has a Facebook account, here are some things they need to remember: 

  1. Don’t say you are older than 18 if you are not. You have GOOD privacy settings that adults do not have because you are a minor. 
  2. Set your privacy and security settings before you do ANYTHING.
  3. Don’t Friend people you don’t know. That just opens the door for creeps and undesirable conversations, not to mention being vulnerable to malicious phishing and other attacks.

It’s difficult to enforce age restrictions on the Internet. I just talked to one 11-year-old who is on Facebook   He does not understand how privacy settings work, or how some of the settings for kids are not in place once they hit 19. It’s important to equip your children with the right information about social networking. It’s here to stay, and as a parent, you will need to figure out the right policy for your family.

Social networks are amazing places for building connections, gaining knowledge, and supporting group efforts. If used right, they can also be safe and rewarding.

To find out more about Facebook safety and security you can go to Facebook.com/safety and Facebook.com/security


About the Author

Linda McCarthy is an accomplished author and computer security expert with 20+ years experience in security auditing, consulting, and training. The former Senior Director of Internet Safety at Symantec, McCarthy’s corporate experience has included positions as VP of Professional Services at Recourse Technologies, and Manager of Security Research and Development at Sun Microsystems. She also founded the front-line security firm, Network Defense. McCarthy received the prestigious Women of Influence award for computer security from CSO Magazine and Alta Associates, an award honoring outstanding achievement in security, privacy and risk management. She has also written extensively on security topics. McCarthy’s published works include IT Security: Risking the Corporation and Intranet Security: Stories from the Trenches.

Seeing the shift in attacks moving from corporate networks to home networks around 2004, McCarthy developed an internet education outreach program for teens at Symantec, working under the Office of the CTO. In 2006, she then published Own Your Space: Keep Yourself and Your Stuff Safe Online, a book specifically written for teens and their families.

Realizing that every family needs access to computer security training, McCarthy published the expanded and fully updated 2010 edition of Own Your Space under Creative Commons Licensing. With the help of corporate sponsors, Own Your Space is now available worldwide for free download from various corporate, non-profit, and social networking sites, including Facebook,  MySpace and Microsoft.

While continuing to update and expand the Own Your Space project, McCarthy appears frequently as a guest blogger on various sites and continues to work with companies around the globe to help educate families about security.