Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why Facebook Can't be Trusted to Care About Kids' Safety

I haven't yet written about Facebook's recent announcement that they are developing technology that would allow children younger than 13 years old to use the site under parental supervision. I've been thinking about it, though, and what a joke it is that anyone is depending on Facebook to look out for the interests of kids, and also how the notion that parents are effective chaperones for their kids on Facebook is laughable. How many parents know how to control their own privacy on Facebook, let alone advise their kids on using the site safely? This is an issue that goes beyond Facebook, too, but is especially relevant to Facebook's exploration of ushering very young kids onto the site because a big part of the plan seems to hinge on the expectation that parents are up to the challenge of looking out for those kids.

As someone who is a parent of teens, as well as an active user of Facebook both socially and as someone whose job centers around social media and staying on top of Facebook's ever-changing platform, I just shake my head at how miserably both Facebook is doing in terms of respecting privacy and parents are doing in terms of knowing what their kids are doing online and providing guidance in that arena.

Consider these recent real-life examples I've witnessed, as a result of having teenage kids:

  • My daughter's high school is very sports-focused. One of the sports teams was recently headed to state championships and raring to go. A player took a photo of herself and a few other team members with their middle fingers raised and tweeted the photo publicly saying "F*ck you [rival team]." A student on the rival team showed the tweet to her mom, who called the school of the tweeting player and reported it. The day of the championship the varsity coach told the team that, as a result of the tweet, the team would not be playing that night. Of course, in the end, the coach went back on that threat and the team did play...therefore sending the message that the incident wasn't that serious, and to my knowledge, the players were not disciplined further and the school didn't use the incident to start any sort of dialogue about online civility or privacy.
  • Teen girls starting Tumblrs full of photos of themselves drinking alcohol, smoking pot and other stuff that, if you're a parent of a teen, would make your skin crawl. Obviously these teens are very adept at creating online presences that their parents don't know anything about, given the freedom with which they are sharing things that are anywhere from questionable to illegal in a very public format. These are the same teens who have allegedly been using Facebook under the scrutiny and guidance of parents.
  • Teens tweeting about being drunk and getting high, including a wide assortment of photos of pot, alcohol and semi-nudity. These kids obviously think Twitter is their own private teen wonderland and aren't being given any sort of guidance by parents, many of whom are probably the sort who think Twitter is a waste of time and refuse to use the site at all. How can you advise your kids how to use something safely if you don't use it yourself?
I'll digress, but obviously I think that we're setting up the perfect storm of parents who know just enough about Facebook to share photos and reconnect with old friends yet are oblivious to Facebook's privacy settings, and Facebook under high pressure to ratchet up the number of users and increase revenue--and young kids are right in the eye of that storm, especially if Facebook does officially open the gates to kids under 13.

I've read articles that claim that Facebook is committed to protecting kids' privacy, and won't monetize that potential segment of new users, but frankly, I don't trust Facebook for one millisecond to not capitalize on a sea of innocent, trusting eyes all attached to mouths that are expert in telling parents "I want this!" Take the recent example of Facebook switching all users' email addresses without permission if you think I'm being too harsh on them.

As a Facebook user, I chose not to show my email address on my profile--this setting was something I purposely didn't enable using Facebook's trusty privacy controls. Yet, when they rolled out these new email addresses for all users, Facebook helpfully ignored my privacy settings and added an email address to my information:

Just as they've done countless times before, Facebook employed the trust "oops" mentality with this new email feature, whereby they ignore users privacy settings and just enable this new feature even when it trumps  those settings. Not sure what I mean about "oops" mentality? I'm talking about the time Facebook let you edit your friend's interests "accidentally". Or the time the Facebook app was secretly uploading all your contacts and their info onto Facebook. Or just the mere fact that they've already acknowledged that they've messed up and vowed to do better when it comes to protecting users' privacy...yet here we are once again having information we didn't opt into added to our profiles anyway.

Facebook has proven that they can't be trusted and will do what's in their interests every time, even despite repeated promises to "do better" and care about why would anyone think for one second that they'll care about protecting kids' privacy?

UPDATE: Just saw this on Twitter--thanks Eric Andersen!Yet another "oops" already, with regard to the new Facebook email--now people are reporting that contacts' e-mail addresses on phones and other devices have been altered without their consent, and their e-mail communication is being redirected and lost. Seriously, this is NOT ok, Facebook.

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