Social Network Risks

Yesterday’s Washington Post has a report on the concerns raised by parents and child advocates about the use of social networks by pre-teenagers.  The story focuses on the photo sharing service, Instagrambut the general issues are relevant to other sites as well: is the site collecting the personal information of susceptible children, and does it do enough to protect them from miscellaneous predators.

The Instagram service is an offshoot of Facebook, the social networking giant, which has about 1 billion users.  The company’s policy requires users to be at least 13 in order to open an account, but the Instagram site does not even ask the user’s age when (s)he signs up.  (The main Facebook site does require a bit of verification, requiring the user’s real name and age; however, the effectiveness of this is questionable, since there is no way to check the user’s answers.)  The result is that many children under 13 have set up Instagram accounts.

There is some reason for concern about this; looking at the site (or at Facebook, for that matter, where I have an account) shows that many users post a great deal of what might be regarded as fairly personal information.  Most readers are probably familiar with news stories of people whose employment or other prospects have been damaged by indiscreet posting and photos on Facebook and other social sites.  Even if one grants that adults have a right to behave like complete idiots if they wish to, it seems reasonable that children, who lack both mature judgment (such as it is) and experience, deserve some protection.

However, people need to realize that, outside the realm of science fiction, this is not a problem that has a technological solution.  Even if it were possible to develop a peripheral device that would automagically detect a persons age, it really wouldn’t solve the problem; all the server on the other end of the transaction can do is to verify that the bit pattern it receives indicates the user is 13 (or 18, or 21).   Were such a device to be developed, I would not expect it to be long before some enterprising teenage hacker produced a “spoofing” device.

Facebook and other social-media sites have said that authenticating age is difficult, even with technology. A Consumer Reports survey in 2011 estimated that 7 million preteens are on Facebook.

It’s not difficult; it’s effectively impossible.

The other thing that all of us, kids and adults, need to remember is how businesses like Facebook work.  It may seem, as you sit perusing your friends’ postings, that you are a customer of the service.  But the customers are actually the advertisers who buy “space” on the service, which has every incentive to provide the customer with as much personal information as possible, in order to make ad targeting more effective, thereby supporting higher ad rates.  When you use Facebook, or other similar “free” services, you are not the customer — you are the product.

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