The Hypocritical Conundrum of Media, Marketing and Youth

A mantra among social marketing mavens is Relevancy and Authenticity. The message does not mean a thing if it doesn’t use those elements – and perhaps a few more – to engage or connect with the members of the community.  But what if the community is being joined – rightfully or not – by the youth that might not be old enough to participate in the conversation? Is it OK to just figure media, marketing and messaging should be accessible to kids just because they have more access than ever before to the distribution points? And who is responsible for those viewers? A recently released study sponsored by Microsoft and a few universities point to the challenges of determining responsibility.

The focus of the study’s report was on parents’ involvement in allowing under-aged children to lie in order to get around Facebook’s ban of users under the age of 13.  The delineation of 13 is based on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that was enacted in 1998.  COPPA sets regulations for commercial websites regarding serving information to users under the age of 13 and the collection of data.  Effectively, it requires the consent of parents for any child under the age of 13 with screening mechanisms in place.  At the time the US Act was passed, it is questionable whether anyone envisioned the type of information that would be collected in the future via sites like Facebook.  In the report, you can see the high level of parents who either knew their child was active on Facebook or even helped set up their account by lying about their age.

This could be a problem for companies if they knew that kids under age were using their sites without the proper precautions, but the fact that kids (and/or parents) are lying about it does remove some culpability from the owners of those sites.  It just brings the question of what is right and what controls should be in place when it comes to access for the youth of today.

There are certainly many outlets for children to access secure, relevant and authentic content.  Perhaps the content and interaction on those outlets are presented in a “social” way, but the fundamentals of social engagement seem better learned through real-life engagements. In the case of social media, is access best served to kids who have not even gotten the fundamentals of social behaviour crystalized? It would be easy to state that it should be up to the parents, if only the parents could really be held accountable.  As we know, parents are not always able to educate, guide or safeguard children in all instances – regardless of intent, concern or compassion. It is questionable whether parents (or the entire public for that matter) understand or recognize exactly how much private information can be gleaned from the internet quickly and easily, so to expect that they would govern their children’s online use based on that might be expecting too much.

The following passage from the report “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age” authored by Danah Boyd, Eszther Hargittai, Jason Schultz and John Palfrey relates to children under 13 accessing the Facebook site.

The bottom line, however, is that youth under 13 appear to be on Facebook in large numbers. And while Facebook takes steps to remove underage users, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated at a talk on education that Facebook only imposes the under–13 prohibition because of COPPA’s restrictions (Lev–Ram, 2011). He argued that younger children should be allowed to get on Facebook because doing so is an important part of the educational process. With regard to COPPA, Zuckerberg stated, “That will be a fight we take on at some point” (Lev–Ram, 2011).

There is a problem with just deciding something is good for children because it is “part of the educational process.”  Just as we wouldn’t let children walk about town at night alone to learn what happens outside of the home after dark, why would we do the same here? While there are absolutely huge differences in the examples, the core is the same – just because its educational, doesn’t mean its right.

We joke that the paperwork and security checks are more daunting in order to adopt a dog from the ASPCA than it is to have a baby of your own. Or, more to the point of this post, there is a more challenging test to see if we are fit to drive a car than there is to see if we are fit to raise a child – of course there is none for the latter.

That is what makes this entire concept of access for youth even harder to get our arms around.  Most parents would want to believe their children are mature enough and more ready for access to sites like Facebook. Yet they have no way of keeping tabs on the situation or even being sure what their children might come across – much less educate them on the granular details of what they can come across on social networking sites.  Will the “Birds and the Bees” conversation be evolving in the 21st century to cover social networking as well?

There is a balance between too much regulation or restriction and the access and opportunity to make our own choices that we fight for as a community.  Hence, we have a conundrum because we have to recognize that we still need to protect our children (and I believe there should be protection in place even for those between 13 and 18) while still providing all opportunities for them to safely experience things.

When COPPA was devised, it was meant to ensure that information was not gathered on children under 13 and a byproduct was that they would be able to interact with on those sites with age-relevant content.  Back then, the communication was much more heavily directed at the user – with much fewer opportunities for user-generated content to be a part or the core of the content mix.  As we all know, the playing field has shifted. Responsibility needs to be assumed by all, but with a heavy weight on the parents. 

For those 7 of 10 parents who opened a Facebook account for their under-age children, let’s hope that they take responsibility for the “educational process” and not blame it on the companies maintaining those training grounds.  As for the companies – specifically Facebook – if we are going to fight to ensure access and less regulation, let’s really focus on meaningful education of both parents and children on privacy and social participation to ensure that the best choices for individuals are truly being taken.

Surely, the convergence of Media, Marketing and Youth and the speed at which that is evolving leaves us fully engaged in an “educational process” that has no end.

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