Consequences of social-network parental controls

Larry Magid looks at possible negative consequences of proposals to verify a user's age on social-networking sites and require parental consent before a minor could log on.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
4 min read

Last week I wroteabout the final report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force that dispelled some myths about predator danger, pointing out that--while predators remain a threat--teens are far more likely to be bullied, harassed, or even sexually solicited by another young person than by an adult predator.

The task force, on which I served as a representative of the nonprofit ConnectSafely.org, was asked by a group of state attorneys general to evaluate technical solutions for keeping kids safe online. One of the most heralded technologies--supported by several attorneys general--would be to mandate technology that would validate the age and identities of minors.

Some of the proposed age-verification schemes would require access to school records--a controversial notion in its own right. Most would require some type of parental involvement or approval, including requiring a parent's approval before a teenager could use an interactive service like MySpace or Facebook.

On the surface that seems reasonable. After all, parents must concur before their kid can get a driver's license or even a tooth extraction. But medical care and driving are not the same as expressing oneself or seeking out information. Requiring age verification or parental permission could take us down a prickly and potentially dangerous path.

To begin with, as my fellow task force member Marsali Hancock, president of the iKeepSafe Coalition, observed in her blog, "we have no consistent and credible way to determine who is a custodial parent and who is a child. In today's Internet environment, this obstacle is insurmountable." Add to this some very strong concerns about privacy, security, and potential commercial misuse of student data, and the obstacles to these schemes get bigger and bigger.

Even if age could be verified, there is a big question over whether it would accomplish anything, considering that kids are more vulnerable to harassment by other kids than being harmed by adults.

As an addendum to the task force report, my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier and I attached a memo in which we observed that the very children who are most at risk are often those who come from homes where the parents are least able or willing to provide support. The very parents who ought to be increasing supervision of their children's online activities are those who are least likely to do so, regardless of the tools available to them, because at-risk kids often come from homes providing limited support.

There are also parents who for a variety of reasons--including political, cultural, or religious beliefs, ignorance of the facts, or fear--would deliberately prevent their teens from accessing social-networking sites.

Unintended consequences

Keeping kids off these services could, in some cases, have severe, negative unintended consequences. A graphic example is the number of referrals directly from MySpace and Facebook to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is evidence that peers are among the most important referrers of troubled teens. Undoubtedly, there are teenagers alive today who might not be if it weren't for social-networking sites.

Other examples of unintended consequences include teens who are abused, neglected, or otherwise mistreated at home being denied access to a venue for discussing issues pertaining to their own families, including how to find help. There are teens seeking support when caught up in divorces or domestic conflict where the legal guardian wishes to "protect" them from their other parent. I also worry about teens who might lose access to resources to help them find their way out of eating disorders, drug use, cutting, and other self-destructive behavior.

There are parents who, for a variety of not-so-good reasons, might deliberately try to suppress their teen's exploration and expression. I'm reminded of a scene from the movie "Milk'' where Harvey Milk gets a call from a gay teenager in Minnesota who is on the verge of suicide because his parents want to "fix" him. I've also heard cases of kids being denied access to information that is counter to their parents' political or religious beliefs.

I also worry about teens who think they might have a sexually transmitted disease being prevented from getting help, and pregnant teenage girls being unable to explore their options.

I am most concerned that at-risk youths will suffer as a result of age verification because it will be almost impossible for them to get parental consent if their parents aren't around to give such consent or don't have the skills to complete the forms. Among them would be some children whose parents will be reluctant to fill out forms in fear of deportation or other legal consequences, as well as teens of parents who are in the United States legally but lack the language skills or literacy to comply.

Click below to listen to my interview with the task force chairman, John Palfrey