How to Get Your Underage Kid on Facebook: Just Lie!

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Hey parents, did you know Facebook has an age limit, or don’t you care? Turns out it’s the latter for most of you: Facebook sets the minimum age threshold at 13, a point I, too, was ignorant of until this study popped up, indicating that virtually all parents of underage kids that sign into Facebook on the sly are aware of and in fact appear to endorse what their kids are doing.

According to the report, titled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” millions of underage users simply bypass Facebook’s age rule and sign up for accounts anyway. What’s more, their parents know they’re doing it, and often help them make it so.

“I know that Facebook isn’t meant for children under the age of 13,” said one parent involved in the study, “but I’m not sure what the harm is in letting my daughter join. She’s mature for her age and our computer is in the living room and I could require her to be ‘friends’ with me. Am I a bad mother if I let my 11–year–old on Facebook?”

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She’s hardly alone. Parental awareness of whether a child had signed up for Facebook or not appears to increase as the child’s age decreases, so while 82% of parents surveyed knew their 12-year-olds were Facebook members, 95% were aware their 10-year-olds had an illicit account. And in the latter instance, 78% of parents surveyed actually helped them create the account.

“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],” write the report’s authors. “This is especially true for general–audience social media sites and communication services such as Facebook, Gmail, and Skype, which allow children to connect with peers, classmates, and family members for educational, social, or familial reasons.”

Why does Facebook set the age restriction at 13 in the first place? The report reasons it’s because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enacted in 1998 by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which obliges commercial web sites to get parents’ permission before collecting data from kids under 13. The report goes on to criticize COPPA, suggesting that it “inadvertently undermines parents’ ability to make choices and protect their children’s data.”

The consequences of parents helping their kids cross the age threshold? Facebook and services like it end up collecting data from underage children without parental consent (that, and the data pool’s age-related metrics are essentially worthless). What’s more, say the report’s authors, the current COPPA-related age restrictions appear to encourage duplicity instead of fostering legitimate account creation by way of a  kid-friendly angle, say a “Facebook for kids.”

“With deception being the only means of access, these possibilities for discussion, collaboration and learning are hindered,” argue the report’s authors, adding that “such a high incidence of parent–supported ToS circumvention results in a normalization of the practice of violating online rules. This results in a worst–case scenario where none of COPPA’s public policy goals for mediating children’s interactions with these Web sites are met.”

Translation: Points for effort, both COPPA and Facebook, but low to vanishing marks for execution. Assuming the study’s data points and results are accurate, it’s reasonable to conclude we need savvier policies in concert with better implementation by service providers like Facebook. “Facebook Kids,” anyone?

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.