Facebook ordered to disclose records on underage users

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Law & order

Image of boy on computer courtesy of ShutterstockFacebook must disclose any available records on the number of children under the age of 13 who have accounts in Northern Ireland or anywhere throughout the UK, the High Court in Belfast has ruled.

The order comes in the context of a trial that's been brought by a girl's father for alleged negligence and for breaching his daughter's right to privacy.

Starting when she was 11, the girl opened four separate Facebook accounts, in spite of Facebook's rule that users have to be at least 13 years old to sign up.

Using those accounts, she posted sexually suggestive and inappropriate photos, the court heard.

Beyond Facebook contacts, men also allegedly texted the girl with "extreme sexual content" as a result of her personal details appearing on Facebook.

Facebook deactivated the accounts as soon as it received reports about them, the BBC reports.

But her father's lawyers are charging that Facebook's open registration system made it too easy for the girl to set up profiles that then put her at potential risk for being preyed on by paedophiles.

The girl's now under a care order, meaning that social services have parental and legal responsibility for her, and the lawyers want Facebook to hand over any records there might be about underage account holders.

Are there any such records?

Facebook says that no, it doesn't retain data on reports of underage users for more than six months.

But the lawyers aren't buying it.

They're pointing to an alleged statement by the company's chief privacy advisor in 2011 that 20,000 people are removed from the site every day for being under the age of 13.

The judge, Mr. Justice Gillen, wrote that whatever records Facebook has must be turned over, as the court tries to assess what kind of challenge Facebook faces in keeping kids under 13 off the site.

The court made the same ruling regarding a request for details on the number of account holders in Northern Ireland generally.

Facebook may not hold onto records about how many underage children's accounts get reported every day, but there are studies out there that come up with substantial numbers.

In research from 2011, New York University found that 55% of children under the age of 12 had a Facebook account, with 76% of them signing up with parents' help.

It's been estimated that millions of pre-teens log in to Facebook every day.

Parents say that it's just about impossible to keep kids off of social media.

At the time of the NYU study, one parent, Marc Smerling, from Brooklyn, NY, had this to say to the Daily Mail about Facebook's limp attempts to keep underage kids from signing up (after all, all it does is state the age limit in its terms of service):

It's unenforceable. It's like having a big bowl of candy and not letting them have any. The internet is everywhere around us. You can’t get away from it.

You just have to have a long conversation about the rules.

True, it must be tough to keep kids off Facebook, or Instagram, or any of the other social media networks that they currently prefer.

Unfortunately, there are far too many reasons for parents to worry about young children interacting with potential creeps on these sites.

Paedophiles use Facebook to groom victims. Cyberbullying is another serious danger.

If you come across a child under 13 who's got a Facebook account and want to report the issue, go to Facebook's Report an Underage Child page.

If you let your child have a Facebook account and you want to try to keep their account safer, here are five tips to help you out.

And, if you'd like to stay up to date on all our Facebook-related news, please Like the Naked Security Facebook page.

Image of boy using computer courtesy of Shutterstock.

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19 Responses to Facebook ordered to disclose records on underage users

  1. Leonie Smith · 426 days ago

    Keeping kids under the age of 13years of age off Facebook for parents is a discipline issue. If you come late to the game, and only start to create boundaries around the digital world when you have to, due to something going wrong, you are already behind the eight ball. The better strategy is to start setting boundaries for computer use early. As a cyber safety educator, I find that I'm often being asked for parenting tips rather than technical cyber safety tips in order to keep kids safe online. If a child is a boundary pusher, if they simply don't respect your boundaries or guidance then yes, it won't be hard for them to create multiple accounts and for them to flout your every rule. Why should they listen to parents or respect their wishes in regards to online safety, if there are no good reasons to abide by them.

    Yes Facebook need to either create a safe place for kids, or do better at keeping kids off Facebook, but parents also need to parent in the digital space. Too many parents simply don't have the confidence to do this, they rely on schools to parent their children online. They won't accept or seek out education on cyber safety for their kids, and then they have to deal with the fallout of their complacency.

  2. Ren Johnson · 426 days ago

    Facebook shouldn't be obliged to prevent underaged registration. Users should be obliged to follow the terms of service.

  3. John Sebi · 426 days ago

    Kids are supposed to have parents who parent. The first line of defense in keeping kids safe online is their parents. Facebook nor any other social media site simply can't.

  4. Boom · 426 days ago

    I'm not a Facebook user so this feature might already be in use but Facebook should come up with a "family plan" where a parent can create accounts for their children under their "admin/parent" account. The parent account can approve new friend requests before it reaches their children's account and can, of course, monitor all messages incoming and outgoing to the kids accounts, plus whatever other features Facebook includes.

    The parent account can also have the ability to promote the child accounts under it to full "adult" status (the parent loses admin status and the child account is now a regular Facebook account) when the child comes of age or when the parent chooses.

    Beyond good parenting, I have no idea how to prevent underage kids from creating their own account without requiring some sort of ID - drivers license, credit card, etc.

  5. Should under 13s be banned from Facebook?

    I don't know.

    But facebook's own rules say they shouldn't be there.

    How does it work with other businesses? If I run (example) a fairground ride and say 'no one under 5ft tall - it's dangerous' then I better ensure no kid 3ft 6in tall goes on the ride and gets hurt. My business - my responsibility to ensure rules I came up with myself are followed.

    I think it's about time that these global mega-corporations were being challenged about their behaviour. They are making a LOT of money and can't persist with this view that they are somehow above all legal scrutiny.

    • Steve · 426 days ago

      There is a massive difference in your situation about ride height and age certification online. Facebook can't physically see your birth certificate and relies on you putting in correct information. This comes completely down to the parents not facebook. If you do not want your child accessing facebook just block the webpage. Kids have alway lied about their age to get onto web pages they aren’t meant to be on.

      Does saying that I am over the age of 18 to access porn make the porn website now responsible for my actions on their website? Or should the person who is paying for the internet subscription, (ie the parents) should ensure that they are providing a safe area for me to play in. Pearents are blaming facebook becuase they are providing a service to the public, but you are providing an internet access to your kid without rules and restrictions.

      Its becoming too easy to blame other people or companies for our own mistakes. Take a look at the way you are parenting your children and see if there is something you can do first to prevent you child from being hurt before playing the blame game.

      • Hi Steve.

        Internet age verification is not impossible.

        Example: some UK mobile phone companies use a £1 (refunded) charge to a credit (not debit) card. It includes use of the 'verified by visa' type secondary ID check, so kids just taking the number from Dad's credit card doesn't work. Credit card companies do a credit check on you when you apply, so spoofing your age to get a card is tricky too. (It's not yet a perfect system, but soon could be.)

        Are parents responsible for their kids? Of course. If a parent allows their 4 year old kid go on their own to that fair I mentioned above, then the parent is negligent. But if the fair owner lets that 4 year old on an adult ride - for profit - then the fair owner is negligent too. This is not one sided.

        Corporations like Facebook are multi-billion dollar businesses. They have been allowed to act as if they are above the law for much too long. If Facebook themselves say it is not safe for young children to use their service then they must take reasonable care to stop young children using their service .... just like any other business.

        (Just to say, I'm not a parent)

        • Steve · 425 days ago

          This is true, however Facebook is for 13+ and not 18+ so credit card verification is not vaild in this situation. Also if we were to go through the credit card verification process to access every website that requires you to be a certain age to view, do you really want your personnel details linked to a credit card that is then placed all over the interent? Especially considering how sloppy a lot of these webiste are with breaches.

          • Steve - verification using credit card for under 18s would be via the parent using their card and verifying for the kid.

            I like this approach because it involves the parent in taking some responsibility for their child. Facebook says no under 13s, but it should be up to a parent to decide if their 13,14,15 year old is mature enough as an individual. It would also give the parent an option to keep control of the account via a master password if they chose to do this.

            There's more details to be ironed out on this, but I'm comfortable with my basic point: if Facebook say their product is not suitable for under 13s then they need to show reasonable care in keeping young kids out of their business. Much smaller, less wealthy, businesses have to do this.

            • Steve · 424 days ago

              John - you are ignoring the fact that not every person wants to plaster their credit card details on every social website to gain access to it. I wouldn't care if my 13,14,15 yr old child had a facebook account (or w/e social media website is popular at that time.) But I defiantly wouldn't want my card details to be typed into those websites. Not to mention (Richard below has commented on this) that not everyone has a credit card. I have in fact a few friends who have cut it up because of financial issues and do not wish to go back into debt.

              Card verification is valid in some situations, but social media I think not. It seems way too much of an overkill and restrictive on something that can be controlled by better parenting and basic web blocking/monitoring on your home network. You probably can't stop your kid 100% but restricting them on it is better than nothing.

  6. a_v · 426 days ago

    I feel this is simply negligent parenting. You can't fix that with technology.

    • Anonymous · 425 days ago

      Maybe we can fix this problem with Credit Card verification ?? Just a thought...so as to ensure that ONLY adults create accounts on FB

      • Niamh · 421 days ago

        Well, since Facebook was set up as a school network, for college kids, maybe we're looking at this the wrong way. It's not "keep the kids off", but "what the hell are adults doing on a school social network in the first place"? (yeah, i know the answer is money, it was a rhetorical question).

        It's like, you make a playground. Swings and roundabouts. Kids doing their thing. One day you decide to let the adults in, and they take over all the swings and hog the roundabouts, then complain "why are they letting kids in here? Surely there should be a rule??"

        • Paul Ducklin · 421 days ago

          Not sure about the USA, but in most countries you are legally an adult at 18...and Facebook was set up for university students (Harvard in Massachussets if memory serves), where I assume the majority of students are 18 or over.

          (The overlap in meanings in English as she is spoken in many countries amongst "school," "college" and "university" don't help here, like the difference between "rest rooms" and "restrooms", in the second of which, "resting" is neither the intended nor a likely activity :-)

  7. j_k · 426 days ago

    Nearly Impossible to keep them off social media? Really? Parents can limit most avenues of access by not buying their children smart phones and by using a free service like OpenDNS to block the sites on their home network.

    • maggotification · 425 days ago

      There's always school/friends house/proxies to get around blocks.

      I do agree it's nearly impossible to keep kids off social media entirely, but that's not really the issue. The issue is about raising the child to be responsible and not misuse tools like Facebook.

  8. arska · 425 days ago

    How about using parent's credit card verification? Children could be accepted by their parents in this way. An other thing could be that children cannot post pictures only text. Also child's account would be parent's sub-account and whole control of the content would be easier for the parents.

  9. RichardD · 424 days ago

    To everyone suggesting credit-card age verification: Really?

    It might sort-of almost work for Facebook, but as a general-purpose age verification system for age-restricted sites, it has numerous problems.

    Firstly, not everyone has a credit-card. Some due to poor financial status, others through choice. By requiring a credit-card, you automatically exclude those people from using the "grown-up" web.

    Secondly, you're trusting the site not to steal either your money or your identity. By giving them your credit-card, you're giving them access to a lot of unnecessary PII which sane people would rather keep private.

    Finally, by giving your credit-card details to an "adult" site without being able to see what that site contains beforehand, you're exposing yourself to the risk of prosecution if that content - or even a small part of that content that you never see - turns out to be illegal. Search for PC Pro's articles on "operation ore" for an example.

  10. Mark J · 422 days ago

    We should be clear that this is not a Facebook only problem. Underage users join other social networks many of which do not provide easy ways to report and just ignore the issue (e.g. YouTube) and/or have much more explicit and extreme content despite being much more popular with younger people (e.g. Tumblr). Although the article focuses on a specific Facebook incident, parents should be aware that, while they might be safely monitoring their children's Facebook usage thinking everything is well and good, their kids could be putting themselves in far more danger on less well moderated sites.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.