Is Facebook the New Big Tobacco?

facebook grid(Image by Josh Russell on Flickr.)

According to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Facebook is exploring ways to tap the under-13 set. Currently kept from legally joining Facebook by a federal law called COPPA, which won’t allow sites to collect data from anyone under 13, many kids simply lie about their age to open an account, often with their parents’ help or tacit approval. But Facebook may be developing a work-around for that law, allowing kids to sign on under parental supervision. According to the article:

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.

Does anyone else think kids have better things to do with their time than post status updates and scroll through other peoples’ timelines? Like homework? Or playing in the park? Maybe reading a good book?

Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, who I interviewed for this month’s story on guiding your kids through the social media badlands (“Mommy, Just One More Status Update Before Bed!”), thinks Facebook is feeling the heat after a disappointing IPO. He said in a statement:

“The company appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders. But here’s the most important issue: There is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13. Indeed, there are very legitimate concerns about privacy as well as the impact on the social, emotional and cognitive development of children. What Facebook is proposing is similar to the strategies used by Big Tobacco in appealing to young people — try to hook kids early, build your brand, and you have a customer for life.”

Facebook claims it’s only trying make the site safer for the estimated 7.5 million underage kids who are already there. In a statement to news outlets, the company said:

Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services … We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.

Steyer has a darker view. In an interview for my article, he told me, “I’m a professor at Stanford, so these are my students who start these companies, and they view human beings as data to be aggregated.”

Not exactly the warm, fuzzy embrace most parents are looking for for their kids during these early, impressionable years.

But the issue of whether tweens should be on Facebook is about more than data aggregation for the purpose of selling stuff and boosting market price or questions about how all this new technology affects kids’ brains, which we really don’t know the answers to yet.

To me, it’s about what one California dad wrote in his blog yesterday. The father of two girls, ages 14 and 17, says he allowed both his daughters to join Facebook before they turned 13. He now says he wouldn’t do it again. Not because anything dramatic and horrible happened. It was more the opposite. He also interviewed Steyer, who told him he shouldn’t be afraid to take a hard line on Facebook, saying his kids might even thank him some day. He writes:

Really? Thank me? Hard to imagine. So I ask [my daughter] Riley, a high school freshman, for her thoughts on keeping preteens off Facebook.

“I don’t think anybody should use Facebook,” she says. All you really do is sit there, she explains, and look at things that other people are doing.

As parents, we get one shot to get our kids across the great traverse of childhood and tweendom and into their more independent teenage years. Is logging onto Facebook really how we want them to spend their precious time?