SAN FRANCISCO — How young is too young to join Facebook?
The Menlo Park, Calif., company currently bans anyone under age 13 from joining the world's most popular social network. Yet an estimated 7.5 million preteens — most of them under age 10 — are already using the service, many with their parents' approval.
The highly charged debate over privacy and safety in the Internet age picked up steam this week as word leaked that Facebook was considering allowing kids younger than 13 to use the service with parental supervision. Among the options the company is exploring: connecting kids' accounts to their parents' accounts and giving Mom and Dad control over what their children can do on the site, such as who they can "friend" and what apps they can use.
"We have to do something super responsible. We can't afford not to," said a person at Facebook familiar with the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly. "We are tiptoeing into it."
After its troubled start as a publicly traded company, Facebook is under increasing pressure to grow revenue. Facebook's stock Monday fell 82 cents, or 3%, to a new low of $26.90.
Lowering the age limit would help the company tap younger users, who advertisers are eager to reach. Kids are also avid users of games — a big moneymaker for Facebook. About 12% of Facebook's $3.7 billion in 2011 revenue came from its share of Zynga games such as"FarmVille" played on Facebook
Still, it's a risky gambit that could expose Facebook to the scrutiny of regulators and the ire of parents. Some fear that kids under age 13 are not ready for the grown-up world of social networking, where even older children can fall prey to online predators or bullies, be exposed to inappropriate content and get bombarded with online ads.
Massachusetts mom and blogger Lori Popkewitz Alper said her three sons, ages 11, 10 and 8, are not allowed on Facebook. And they won't be any time soon, even if the company lowers the age threshold.
"It's shocking to me that Facebook is contemplating doing this," said Popkewitz Alper, editorin chief of the blog Groovy Green Livin. "I feel like I am very aware of the issues and the potential dangers for children, and it really frightens me to think that young kids are potentially going to have access."
But other parents are more sanguine about the prospect of Facebook opening to younger users. Microsoft Research released a study last year that found 36% of parents knew their children joined Facebook before they turned 13, and that many of them helped their kids sign up.
Just this week Dawn Carter, a 47-year-old mom of three from Riverside, gave her 11-year-old son permission to set up an account to stay in touch with classmates over the summer. She allowed her 14-year-old daughter to sign up two years ago. Carter said she has taught her kids not to hand out personal information, and she scrutinizes their privacy settings.
"I just didn't see any difference between communicating with a Facebook account or texting on his phone," Carter said.
Facebook already has limited what minors can do on the site. For example, they can't share content with "everyone," a setting that allows anyone on the Internet to peruse someone's posts and photos.
But Facebook is having a tough time policing its site to catch young scofflaws. Age limits are too easy to circumvent, and even though Facebook says it shuts down every underage account it finds and has tried to beef up its age verification systems, it privately concedes that there are millions of underage kids on Facebook. And that puts Facebook at odds with a federal law that requires it to get parental consent before collecting personal data on kids.
Some children's advocates agree that Facebook should find a way for tweens to use the site legitimately and safely. But others said there is not yet enough research on the effects of social media on young kids to know whether that can be done.
If Facebook opens up to kids under 13, it will have to put into place safeguards, such as giving parents a way to control what data is mined from their children when they click the "like" button or play a game, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
"There need to be strict limits on how much information can be collected and analyzed," Chester said. "Because Facebook collects data from users and their networks, the privacy of a child's friends must also be protected."
Facebook last year agreed to biennial privacy audits to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that it misled users about how it used their personal information. The company also agreed to privacy audits.
The FTC is currently reviewing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which regulates what personal information websites can mine from kids. Facebook spent some of its $650,000 in first-quarter lobbying money on the law.
Given Facebook's past privacy flaps, Los Angeles resident Paula Whidden said she's concerned about the company's plans for children, particularly now that it's under pressure to deliver returns to shareholders. The 43-year-old mom of two who blogs about family and faith says she uses Facebook "prolifically" but won't let her 11-year-old or 8-year-old anywhere near it.
"I would say as a parent I wouldn't immediately trust the limitations they put," she said. "I would be very leery based on Facebook's history."
Parents aren't the only ones worried that kids would be vulnerable. Lawmakers also expressed concern Monday.
"We acknowledge that more and more children under the age of 13 are using Facebook, and this is a problem that needs to be addressed," Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) wrote in a letter to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Monday. "However, we believe strongly that children and their personal information should not be viewed as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder."