Facebook Wants Your 9 Year-Old's Attention--and Probably A Lot More

Posted on June 08, 2012 by Michael Simon


If you’re parenting a pre-teen or teen in 2012, there’s a pretty good chance your teenager is using Facebook. It’s in the top 3 websites most accessed in almost every developed country around the world. And if you’re a female in your 30s or 40s, there’s a very good chance you’re using Facebook, too—since that’s the largest demographic slice of the Facebook users pie. What Facebook wants from both age groups is the same, though: they want to know what you like and what you’re doing online.

Publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook is testing a new system that would allow children under 13 to have a Facebook account. Many parents know that up until now, Facebook has had an ostensible age limit, not allowing users under 13 to sign up for an account.  It’s not that Facebook gladly set this limit; they are regulated by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which closely controls the type of information that any website can collect from children under 13. 

But if you’re a parent, you also likely know—or should know—that millions of children under 13 already have Facebook accounts, obtaining by simply lying on answers to questions about subscriber age/birthdates during the sign-up process. It’s not a few children we’re talking about; Consumer Reports says that 5 million kids under 10 have Facebook accounts and another 2.5 million are between 10 and 13 years of age. They’re kids—they know way more than you and I do about negotiating digital media.

If Facebook no longer officially restricts access to children under 13, it will completely change the privacy and marketing landscape of American youth culture; that’s for starters. The consumer market for under 13’s is so large and so powerful with you—the parent—that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a closed-door deal struck between Facebook executives and the folks that recently took them public that as part of the company going public, Mr. Zuckerberg had to agree to lift the age restriction and open the floodgates to begin collecting private information on young children.  And that’s why it’s time for parents, educators and mental health professionals to speak up. 

Facebook, Google, and MySpace are powerful market research instruments, as are most of the instruments of “democratic youth culture”—the wider cultural context in which teen identities are forged. When your teen (or you) go on Facebook and talk about what you want and what you like, and you click that little thumbs-up sign, it enables corporations and market researchers to discover, reinforce, and persuade you to buy what they’re selling. The Wall Street Journal reported in early June, 2012 that “…[U]nder-13 features could enable Facebook and its partners to charge parents for games and other entertainment accessed by their children.”

Parents and teens are already plenty familiar with the “Facebook Wars” and how difficult it can be to pry your teen away from the site and its “always on” allure. While younger children are not often capable of the kind of media use persistence we see in adolescents, the sorts of battles over being on Facebook will most certainly hit parents of younger kids should the ban be lifted in an official capacity. 

But let’s go back to the issue of privacy and marketing. Joseph Turow, author of The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, got my attention—he’s the one who outlined for me how the new marketing and advertising industries work in the digital age. Who’s got your teenager’s attention? What is he or she doing right now, as you read this article?

Well, if Facebook has its way, new media marketers, behavioral targeting firms and neural advertisers are going to have the attention of your children under 13. And that’s not what your 9 year-old or you are going to explicitly agree to when you’re online.

Advertisers and corporations know that if you can afford it (and often, even if you can’t) you want to buy what your teens and children want. For millions of teenagers in America, given our relative affluence in this country—it’s mostly all disposable income. Mass media and corporations want your children’s money—your money—and they’re going to try to get it by becoming the primary sources of identity development for your kids. This isn’t some crazy conspiracy theory. The idea is to link up, as soon as possible in the life of your child, brand loyalty with identity, such that your child comes to feel that choosing to buy this or that is a natural choice, reflective of who they really are and what they really care about. I chose Levi’s jeans. Nobody made me do that. Yes, they did. Some of the smartest people in the world—and some not so brilliant people right out of college—are paid anywhere from a modest wage to an obscene amount of money to work very, very hard to make you buy things. And the work these folks do is what your teens now see daily on their iPads, iPods, laptop and desktop computers, smartphones, on Facebook, Yahoo, through Google searches, on library computers and kiosks, radio, billboards, Internet cafés, on gaming devices, on buses, at schools, in airports. Who’s got your teenager’s attention? Who do you want to not only the attention but also the private information, Internet/Facebook use patterns and exactly what your 9 year-old “likes” on Facebook?

Parents, educators and mental health professionals need to weigh on this issue. I’m not trying to tell you what to think. I am asking, though, that you speak what’s on your mind—to your kids, your colleagues, the media and perhaps most important, to Facebook.

Michael Y. Simon, LMFT is the author of The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager (Fine Optics Press, 2012), a work that explores American adolescent development in the context of today’s digital world.  He is a therapist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and the founder of Practical Help for Parents, an online support community for parents, teachers and health professionals who work daily with teens.

You can read more about this issue online at the Digital Trends website.

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