A recent ruling of the Delhi High Court has brought forth an open secret about social media- millions of minors across the world are accessing these social networking sites despite rules barring them from doing so.
The Delhi High Court in its ruling, said that it wants Facebook and Google to submit their suggestions to ensure that minors in India do not open accounts . Even as social media giants fight it out in Indian court, developments in the US, where both Facebook and Google Inc are headquartered – indicate that enforcing age restrictions has failed to keep kids off social media.
Facebook has restricted access to children under the age of 13 as per the US law, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Trolling, cyber-bullying and child pornography remain the primary reasons from disallowing kids from accessing the social networking site.
Many dos and donts of social conduct applicable in the real world become redundant in the cyber world.
“We tell our kids about good touch and bad touch. We warn them against talking to strangers. These are social codes. But do they apply in virtual world? Are the activities we do on Facebook, private or social? Social networking sites have blurred the boundaries between social and private,” said Nishant Shah, Director, Research, at the Bangalore based Centre for Internet & Society.
But the fact is that under-13 children continue to create Facebook accounts by lying about their ages while completing the application form.
To know the dynamics of children accessing Facebook, more than 1,000 US parents participated in joint research conducted by Harvard, University of California, Northwestern University and Microsoft Research in 2011.
“Of all parents surveyed – including ones whose children are not on Facebook – 36 percent reported that their child joined Facebook under the age of 13 even if the child is now older than 13. When considering just the parents who report that their child is on Facebook, 72 percent reported that their child joined Facebook when the child was younger than 13,” said the report.
Of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook, at least 5.6 million were younger than 13, according to projections from Consumer Reports’ State of the Net survey released in 2012.
This explains why the social media giant is exploring the possibilities of adding children under 13 in its pool of users. Facebook is testing a technology which would allow kids to access the site under parental guidance, reported the Wall Street Journal. “Mechanisms being tested include connecting children’s accounts to their parents’ and controls that would allow parents to decide whom their kids can “friend” and what applications they can use, people who have spoken with Facebook executives about the technology said. The under-13 features could enable Facebook and its partners to charge parents for games and other entertainment accessed by their children, the people said,” noted the report.
Back in India, analysts wonder if there are easy solutions to be found. Senior advocate and cyber law expert Pawan Duggal said that a middle path between the Indian and US laws looks difficult. “As per Facebook norms, one has to sign a contract with the site to become a user. The age of majority, according to the Indian Majority Act, is 18 years. Anyone below this age is unable to enter into any kind of contract. Unless the Parliament amends this law, minors in India cannot legally access sites like Facebook,” he said.
Rather than reacting in a knee jerk manner just because this is social media, the government should apply the same logic and caution it does in dealing with problems in the real world, said Nishant Shah.
“All the time, through TV, newspaper, movies, children are exposed to material which does not leave a very good impact on their. There, they are treated as consumers and hence, it is not considered harmful. But on Facebook, they are not merely consumers. They are active participants as they are involved in the act of registration on these sites. And hence, all the talk of laws and punishment,” he said.
With the ease with which one can lie about age while creating a Facebook account, parental guidance or some other kind of monitoring appears the only way forward, according to Mumbai based lawyer Prashant Mali. “These sites can certainly spend a small chunk of their budget in creating mass awareness for parents so that parents are better prepared to deal with the issue. The other way can be to ensure that a minor can open an account with the help of a guarantor. Facebook community pages of the kid’s school can verify the kid’s details,” he said.