Facebook has struggled for years with a lack of transparency around its privacy policies and for even longer with its perception as a safe haven for stalkers looking to victimize young people. In reality, it’s simply the de facto means of communication for nearly a billion people. Whether or not you like Facebook, whether or not you lost money in its disappointing IPO, and whether or not you think this particular social media tool has any place in education, the fact of the matter is that Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Which is why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public musings about allowing children under 13 to legitimately use the platform was especially intriguing. We know that many, many pre-teens already use it; falsifying your age on Facebook isn’t exactly rocket science. Many parents even help their kids circumvent the age controls that were put into place largely as a result of US legislation called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). As Danah Boyd explains,
…Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg openly questioned the value of COPPA in the first place.
While Facebook has often sparked anger over its cavalier attitudes towards user privacy, Zuckerberg’s challenge with regard to COPPA has merit. It’s imperative that we question the assumptions embedded in this policy. All too often, the public takes COPPA at face-value and politicians angle to build new laws based on it without examining its efficacy.
The point of all of this is that Zuckerberg’s proposal to allow younger kids to access Facebook with some reasonable safeguards in place actually makes a lot of sense. No doubt, his suggestion sent many child and privacy advocates into apoplectic fits. However, taking a closer look at what he’s proposing, it actually seems to be a more effective approach than one that encourages secrecy and deception. According to the Wall Street Journal,
Facebook, concerned that it faces reputational and regulatory risks from children already using the service despite its rules, believes it has little choice but to look into ways of establishing controls that could formalize their presence on the site, people familiar with the matter said…
Seeking alternatives to continued unauthorized use of its site by kids, Facebook over the past year has been developing ways to enable them to become legitimate users monitored by their parents, people who have spoken to Facebook executives said.
On the table are ways to help ensure that parents must approve membership, tying accounts for pre-teens to a parent or guardian account, and providing active monitoring tools for parents. Of course, none of this will keep a determined 11-year old without parental consent from joining the social network. However, for the parents who actually approve and assist their under age kids in creating an illegitimate account (“a substantial percentage” of parents, according to recent findings by Microsoft Research), the proposed Facebook membership changes could be a real boon.
What does this mean for education?
Facebook doesn’t appear interested in creating another Club Penguin with a separate walled garden for kids. That said, they have already rolled out Facebook Groups for Schools and every week it seems that a new social-enabled learning tool appears for students and schools. More than anything, the acknowledgement by Facebook in particular and society in general that social media are ubiquitous tools for communication, valued by everyone from the very young to the very old, means that we’re going to see continued progress in networked learning applications.
It also means that many of the taboos and fears around Facebook that have kept it out of schools are beginning to fade in favor of cautious acceptance. This paves the way even more than recent litigation for teachers to leverage Facebook pages and other aspects of this incredibly popular network to reach students on their terms, in ways that will be useful and engaging.
Will first-grade teachers suddenly be messaging their 6-year old students on Facebook at night? No, of course not. But it does mean that middle and high school students may find parents, school committees, and teachers far more willing in the coming months and years to interact in more relevant ways than sending home paper notices or launching yet more expensive services that students will rarely visit.
It also means that the companies developing social and blended learning platforms will need to innovate more and consider Facebook single sign-on to encourage participation and engagement.