“Under 13s should be on Facebook,” Mark Zuckerberg commented last week. Unfortunately, the legislation around minors using Facebook is apparently too difficult to deal with. Legislation? Schmegislation! While the legal department sorts that out, what can Facebook do for the young networkers among us?

While there are no plans for Facebook to change its policy right now, it is no secret that there are many children on Facebook at this very moment. They are there illegally but they are there. So it wouldn’t harm the site to at least start working towards a more child-friendly Facebook. In fact: we all benefit.

300px BBFC PG.svg 2 Child support: Working towards a child friendly Facebook

Ratings

Assigning a rating to your post would be a good idea. In fact, Facebook could let you pick a standard rating like our current movie rating system. If you reckon you’re likely to offend the pure of hearts and more innocent go for R. Are you only posting nice messages, pictures and videos, go for G.

Once you’ve picked a rating, this will be a standard when posting new things, with a pull-down option to change it. Our young friends won’t be able to see the R rated posts (unless they lie about their age – which is what they’re doing now but they won’t necessarily need to do in the future).

The ratings system should not just be applied to your own postings, but to applications and links as well. In fact, once you start rating all the links you post properly, we might end up with a proper system for websites. The Like-button is on many websites, so the rating could be shown as well.

There are plenty of people on Facebook that don’t really appreciate (partly offensive) content. What one may consider fun could be offensive to someone else. A ratings system could be useful for everyone, not just children.

Fun for kids

246 1009125132 kids playground 420 Child support: Working towards a child friendly FacebookSo how can Facebook be made more attractive for children? When a 10-year-old fills in his/her age and completes the registration form, Facebook should immediately go in child-modus and point out child-friendly apps and have fun videos explaining all the features. Perhaps even use Comic Sans (joking, joking!).

The fact is that children like different things than most parents. That clean, slick Facebook look may not work for that 10-year-old. If I was a child and had to choose between Facebook and Habbo Hotel… Well… I’d pick the bright colours and animations.

Still, Parents and teachers can use Facebook as a tool to help explain what social networks are about and how children should use Facebook. Children like discovering things on their own, though. So yes, once Facebook opens up for children, it should actively pursue this new audience and help them figure it out and like it too.

Zuckerberg and his crew should encourage and work with child-friendly organizations, charities, schools and instituations to create the best experience possible for children. Perhaps Facebook could even build an interactive, fun application that teaches kids about… Facebook.

Alienating older members

While implementing special features for children, Facebook shouldn’t forget the millions of other members and the image it has now. In the Netherlands, the first people to switch from popular network Hyves to Facebook were students and young professionals, not teenagers. Many of the early switchers thought Hyves was too messy and too focused on teenagers. Facebook offered a clean, cool and more adult version of Hyves’ social network.

To avoid people feeling alienated by changes for children, Facebook should only cater these new children features to relevant users: parents, children and anyone else who wants to opt in (for example teachers or grandparents). Like Facebook is trying to target its ads right, it should try to target its features right as well.

Otherwise, people will look for an alternative that we haven’t got on the radar right now, but that may be just behind the horizon.

Safety first

With the fun right, Facebook should make an even bigger issue of safety. When children are playing games or communicating with friends on Facebook, the participants’ age should be displayed at all times. There are some relevant questions to be asked here that need answering.

  • Should under-13s be able to interact with any Facebook member (of any age)?
  • Should children be on Facebook at all if their parents (or another family member for example) aren’t a member?
  • Should parents be able to check (and/or approve) what their children are doing on Facebook and to what extent?
  • To what extent can Facebook work with (local) governments to protect their youngest members from people like sex offenders, scammers and other bad eggs?
  • What are the consequences when it comes to privacy issues in general?

This is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle. Controls will need to be implemented in the site and this should both be safe and in accordance with the law. The brilliance of Facebook is that it’s much less anonymous than the dark chat rooms that were popular over ten years ago. That doesn’t mean it’s safe though. In fact it’s not. For more on this, see our recent post on Cyber-Parenting: FamilySignal helps keep kids safe on Facebook.

Educational

All in all, Facebook shouldn’t abandon its current form just to cater to a new audience. It should however start preparing a more child-friendly version of its social network. Taking away worries of parents now, might help them warm to the idea of their children using Facebook in the future.

Opening up Facebook for children isn’t a bad thing after all: children can stay in touch with travel-crazy family members or uncles and aunts that live too far away to visit every month. It could help bring families closer and allow for children to stay in touch with the people they care about.

Zuckerberg is right when saying that “My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.” Facebook is becoming an essential way of communicating at for a substantial part of the people living on this globe. Education is supposed to prepare you for the real world out there. Children these days are growing up with the Internet, thus allowing them to access Facebook is therefore (right now) a good thing.

But you can’t expect that the network will regulate itself. We are all children sometimes when it comes to social networking and life in general. So when the legislation is figured out, Facebook should be ready to make some big, big changes that can’t be done overnight. It’s not a bad idea to start today. After all, there are many children on Facebook already – of all ages.